The art of form versus the art of emotion in thomas mann's death in venice (final)


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The art of form versus the art of emotion in thomas mann's death in venice (final)

  1. 1. Page |1Philippine Normal UniversityCollege of Languages, Linguistics and LiteratureDepartment of Languages, Bilingual Education and LiteratureSubject: Litt 508 E (20th Century European Literature)Novel: Death in Venice by Thomas MannDiscussant: Manuel, Jesullyna C.M. A. ed LiteratureApril 26, 2010 THE ART OF FORM VERSUS THE ART OF EMOTION IN THOMAS MANN’S DEATH IN VENICE I. Introduction Form as a dimension of meaning has little to do with morality; and yet as the prize ofdiscipline it is invested with the ethical character. This is the central paradox of Thomas Mann’s Death inVenice. This paper will attempt to discuss the elements of form and dissolution in the novel, thediscrepancies between the meaning and manner, between the profits of the plague and the price ofperfection. Paul Thomas Mann was born in Lubeck, Germany on June 6, 1875. He was a son of a senatorand a grain merchant and a Brazilian woman who immigrated in Germany when she was just seven yearsold. He belonged to a bourgeois family. He studied at the University of Munich in preparation for hisjournalism career. He also studied art history, economics, history and literature. Although there areimplications of his homosexuality, Thomas Mann got married and had six children. His children haveprominent figures in arts and literature as well. Mann was awarded with the Nobel Prize in Literature in1929, principally in recognition of his popular achievement with the epic Buddenbrooks (1901), The MagicMountain (Der Zauberberg 1924), and his numerous other stories. II. The Novel and Its Background A number of events occurred in 1911 inspiring Mann to begin work on Death in Venice. One of thesewas the death of Czech-Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, a brooding modernist who made his living as aconductor on May 18, 1911. Mahlers fierce and uncompromising dedication to his art, and demand forperfection from his musicians, appealed to Mann, who had met him a few years before his death. Mann notThe Art of Form Versus The Art of Emotion in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice
  2. 2. Page |2only gives von Aschenbach Mahlers first name, but he also models his heros physical description on thecomposer. Mann was no stranger to Venice either. In fact, he was vacationing there when Mahler died, andfollowed reports of the composers last days in the local papers. In addition to the shock of Mahlers death,Mann was also influenced by the deterioration of the political situation in Europe at this time. The politicaldeterioration of Europe during this time was matched by an increasing cultural decadence and moraldecline, a theme Mann explores, and one that was popular in literature during the turn of the century(Dierks: 1972). Thomas Mann’s wife Katia, recalls that the actual idea for the story came during an actualholiday in Venice, which she and Thomas took in the spring of 1911: “All the details of the story, beginning with the man at the cemetery, are taken from experience … In the dining-room, on the very first day, we saw the Polish family, which looked exactly the way my husband described them: the girls were dressed rather stiffly and severely, and the very charming, beautiful boy of about thirteen was wearing a sailor suit with an open collar and very pretty lacings. He caught my husbands attention immediately. This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach. He didnt pursue him through all of Venice — that he didnt do — but the boy did fascinate him, and he thought of him often … I still remember that my uncle, Privy Counsellor Friedberg, a famous professor of canon law in Leipzig, was outraged: "What a story! And a married man with a family!"- (Katia Mann- Unwritten Memories). The boy who inspired "Tadzio" was Baron Wladysław Moes, whose first name was usuallyshortened as Władzio or just Adzio. This story was uncovered by Thomas Manns translator AndrzejDołęgowski around 1964, and was published in the German press in 1965. Some sources report that Moeshimself did not learn of the connection until he saw the 1971 film version of the novel. Moes was born in1900, and was aged 11 when he was in Venice, significantly younger than Tadzio in the novel. Moes died in1986 and is interred at the Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw. Moes was the subject of a biography The RealTadzio (Short Books, 2001) by Gilbert Adair ( Summary of the Novel Death in Venice is a novel which tells the story of Gustav von Aschenbach, a dignified andrespected writer who went to Venice for a much needed break from the exhaustion caused by his work.While on vacation, he saw a 14-year old Polish boy named Tadzio and he was immediately smitten by hisbeauty and perfection. This infatuation which eventually led to obsession caused him his owndisintegration and finally, his death.The Art of Form Versus The Art of Emotion in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice
  3. 3. Page |3IV. Analysis of the Novel In Freudian terms, Aschenbach represents a ―repressed‖ man. At the beginning of the novel, Gustav von Aschenbach while possessing a latent sensuality, have always keep his passions in check, making sure that it does not interfere with his life as an artist and his art. “Even as a young man, he had valued fastidiousness as the essence and innermost core of talent, and its demands were the reason he had reined in and cooled off his emotions, for he knew that emotions tend to be satisfied with happy approximates and half-realized success.”(p.144)Freud believes that this state of imbalance could not long remain stable nor produce truly inspired art.Thus, having kept his life so tight and controlled for so long, when Aschenbach finally decided to loosenand let down his guards, these passions have redoubled and took over his life. When Aschenbach finallysuccumbs to the calling of sensual beauty, as represented by the ―beautiful boy‖ Tadzio, all of his moralstandards break down and he becomes a slave to beauty, a slave to desire; he becomes debased. “He collapsed on the steps of the cistern in the middle of this space, resting his head against its stone rim…” “He sat there. The great master, the artist grown dignified, the author of “A True Wretch,” with the abyss and disdained dissipation, the climber of such heights, the transcender of personal knowledge who had outgrown irony and accustomed himself to the amenities and obligations of mass public trust, the celebrity whose fame had been officially sanctioned, whose name had been ennobled and whose style served as the model by which schoolboys were taught to write—he sat there.” (p 215). Von Aschenbachs obsession with the boy causes him to rationalize or ignore behaviors thatpreviously would have been repugnant to him. He begins wearing jewelry, dyes his hair, and donsflamboyant clothes in an effort to attract Tadzios attention. Ironically, everything that disgusted him in thebeginning of the story, he embraced in the end. Hence, Aschenbach undergoes a displacement from oneextreme art to the other, from the cerebral to the physical, from pure form to pure emotion. ThomasMann’s novels warn the danger, the deathly danger imposed by these two extremes. From its opening sentences, Death in Venice establishes an ominous tone. The descriptions of thedire political situation, the storm, and the menacing-looking stranger foretell the impending dangers.Specifically, the gravestones and mortuary introduce thoughts of death. “Nothing stirred behind the fences of those stonemasons’ yards where the crosses, headstones and other monuments on display make up a second, unoccupied graveyard. Across the way, the funeral chapel with its Byzantine architecture stood silently in the reflected light of the dying sun…” (p. 140).The Art of Form Versus The Art of Emotion in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice
  4. 4. Page |4The Byzantine architecture with its Greek lettering introduces the motif of the classical world, whichpervade the novel. It is important to remember that Thomas Mann is an economical writer. He writes longsentences but he remains to be as precise as possible. He does not waste a word; every detail he includes inhis sentences is significant (Chase). Also note Mann’s parallel presentation of his main character and thecurrent political circumstances establishes what will become a symbolic link between the two in the end: thedeclining Aschenbach will come to stand for a civilization blinded to its inner decay and on the brink ofinevitable war. The first chapter additionally introduces the polarity around the novel is conceptually structured: theopposition of the Northern European self-restraint and the southern sensuality. Mann, following Plato,believed this conflict between conscious will and uncontrolled passion, between rational morality andpassionate art, to be the crucial struggle in human existence. While Aschenbach is characterized as theprototypical upstanding, stiff, and dignified Prussian intellectual, his vision of the tropical scene and hisdesire to travel south hints his underlying passion and desire that subsequently at the end of the novel ledhim to his death and degradation. The story’s location in Venice is highly significant: Italy represents the sensuous south, in contrast toAschenbach’s austere native Germany; Von Aschenbach, a German, epitomizes the austere, hardworking,methodical, and rational Teutonic character, priding himself on his intellect, focus, and self-restraint.Aschenbach’s physical journey from one culture to another and from one climate to the other parallels hisinternal descent from cool control to fiery passion. In particular, the city of Venice can be seen as a symbolfor Aschenbach himself: Venice is unique for its daring construction; it is a city built in the middle of alagoon, built and maintained by sheer will over the forces of nature (Bergenholtz: 1997). Similarly,Aschenbach considers true art to be the victory of the will over physical needs and natural impulses and heconsiders himself to have accomplished such victories. “This conflict between the inclinations of the soul and the capabilities of the flesh suddenly seemed profound and weighty- the prospect of physical defeat so humiliating, so crucial to avoid at all cost…” (p. 178).Yet, it is also well known that despite the mask of glory, Venice is gradually sinking, literally rotting fromwithin; again the same might be said of Aschenbach. In the novel, the decline of Venice is portrayed byMann through the officials and merchants inside the city. Public officials and merchants are corrupt,conspiring to hide the news of the cholera sweeping the city from visitors, and almost all Venetians thatappear in the story are disingenuous, desiring only to extract money from von Aschenbach and otherThe Art of Form Versus The Art of Emotion in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice
  5. 5. Page |5visitors. The cholera infecting the city represents the decadence into which not only Venice has fallen, butvon Aschenbach himself and, at the beginning of the twentieth century, much of Europe. Mann traveled toVenice extensively during his life, saying that it reminded him of his hometown, Lubeck. He also set his1896 story, "Disillusionment," in Venice. Death in Venice is written according to a method Thomas Mann called "myth plus psychology." Bothelements play equally important roles in tracing Aschenbachs decline. Tadzio is described in mythical termsand compared to Greek sculpture, to the god of love, to Hyacinth and Narcissus, to Platos characterPhaedrus. He describes the sunrise in terms of Greek mythology, and laces his story with references tofigures such as Kleitos, Kephalos, Semele, Zeus, Orion, and others. Episodes such as when von Aschenbachrides in the coffin-like gondola with an unlicensed gondolier are used to evoke motifs in Greek literaturesuch as heroes journey to the Underworld on Charons boat across the River Styx. Such allusions help tocharacterize von Aschenbach as a learned man of refined sensibilities and to link von Aschenbachs fatewith that of mythological characters. By liberally dosing his story with implicit and explicit allusions toGreek mythology, and by incorporating Platonic dialogues into a realistic story, Mann highlights vonAschenbachs love of classicism and antiquity. Such references also make the story, for a 1912 readership,more palatable, as they lessen the impact of Manns exploration of same sex, inter-generational erotic love. “More than once, as the sun set behind Venice, he sat on a bench in the hotel park and watched as Tadzio played happily with a ball on the rolled gravel courtyard in a white outfit fitted with a colorful belt. He could have sworn he was watching Hyacinth, who was fated to die young because a pair of gods loved him (p. 190-191).” The Apollonian and Dionysian philosophies are both explored in the story. In the first part of thenovel, Aschenbach embodies the characteristics of the former but as the story progresses towards the end;his character transformed and embodied that of latter. By dedicating himself to Apollo, the god of reasonand the intellect, Aschenbach has denied the power of Dionysus, the god of unreason and passion- avoluntary act that Freud would call ―suppression‖. Dionysus seems to have followed Aschenbach to Venicewith the intent of destroying him: the red haired man who keeps crossing von Aschenbach’s path, in theguise of different characters, could be none other than Silenus, Dionysuss mythological chief disciple.Silenus role is disputed, however, since he bears no physical resemblance to the secondary characters in thebook. In the Benjamin Britten opera these characters (The traveler, the gondolier, the leading player and thevoice of Dionysus) are played by the same baritone singer, who also plays the hotel manager, the barber andthe old man on the Vaporetto. The trope of placing classical deities in contemporary settings was popular atThe Art of Form Versus The Art of Emotion in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice
  6. 6. Page |6the time when Mann was writing Death in Venice: in England, at almost the same time, E. M. Forster was atwork on an entire short-story collection based on this premise. The idea of the opposition of the Apollonianand Dionysian was first proposed by Nietzsche in The The Birth of Tragedy and was also a popular motif ofthe time ( Psychological elements are prominently figured in the novel. In the beginning of the story, we seeAschenbach as a man who forcibly restrains himself from worldly and libidinal drives but as Freud haspredicted, these repressions only force his drives to emerge by some other means; in Aschenbach’s case, hisdreams: when he daydreamed about the tropical swamp and the Dionysian orgy for the ―strange-god‖.Notably, the strange appearance and re-appearance of red-haired men in the course of the story wouldsymbolize demons or devils. Moreover, Aschenbach’s journey to Venice and into his death is attended inevery turn by fateful incidents (the dream in Munich of the jungle, the mention of the eyes of the crouchingtiger prefiguring the description of the cholera, the dandy on the boat and the Aschenbach who leaves thehotel barber with his hair dyed and his lips painted), and by threatening figures (the tramp in Munich, theunlicensed gondolier, the street musician whose bared teeth suggest the skull forcing its way through itsflesh). Another major aspect of Mann’s style is his great love for found materials and his writing often takeson the character of quoted pastiche. Death in Venice for example contains strategically altered citations fromPlato, Cicero, Homer, Xenophon, Plutarch, and August von Platen, as well as an encyclopedia entry onAsiatic cholera. This penchant for quotations feeds into two other stylistics idiosyncrasies: an inscrutableauthorial perspective and periodic ruptures of hermetic fictionality. Because Mann’s narrators often speakthrough the voice of a quoted source, authorial opinion is placed at double remove, filtered through thenarration that is itself filtered through the material to which it is based. It is thus, very difficult to determinein any way, what Mann may have thought of his character—readers are left to judge for themselves.Moreover, Mann’s quotations also direct readers’ attention outside the fictional universe of the actual storyat hand. His stories are set in real places and at real times. They occasionally even modulate into the presenttense, as in the graveyard scene, to emphasize that the fictional events are taking place in actual locationsthat readers can, if they choose, go and see for themselves. Both in its intertextuality and its willful rupturingof fictional illusion, Mann’s work anticipates the postmodern characteristic of contemporary fiction. “For beauty, good Phaedrus, and beauty alone is both visible to the human eye and worthy of adoration: it is—mark my word!—the only form of the sublime that our senses can both perceive and endure (p. 186).”The Art of Form Versus The Art of Emotion in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice
  7. 7. Page |7V. Themes and Symbolisma. The artist, the art and the society The idea of the artist as a hero with a noble calling to pursue beauty has a rich tradition in westernliterature, especially romantic and modern literature. Mann describes von Aschenbach as an artist who hassacrificed his emotional life and distanced himself from the sensuous world to create beauty with his stories.In the second chapter, the narrator says of von Aschenbach: "Even as a young man … he had considered perfectionism the basis and most intimate essence of his talent, and for its sake he had cooled his emotions." (p. 151). As a writer consumed by ideas and a moral obligation to pursue beauty at all costs, even his physicalhealth, von Aschenbach likens himself to heroic figures such as Socrates and St. Sebastian, an early Christianmartyr, both of whom lived their lives in pursuit of a higher good. A critic in Mann’s novel claims that thekind of hero von Aschenbach favored in his stories was based on the idea of "an intellectual and youthfulmanliness which grits its teeth in proud modesty and calmly endures the swords and spears as they passthrough its body." Von Aschenbach was proud of this description, and felt it accurately portrayed his work.Mann shows what happens when von Aschenbach loses control over his passions and can no longerdistinguish between art and life.b. Homosexuality Death in Venice has become a central text in the canon of gay literature, even though the noveldepicts no sexual acts and never explicitly mentions homosexuality. However, von Aschenbachs love forTadzio, which he tells himself is based on the young boys beauty, is quite obviously sexual as well, and thepassion he feels for the boy is evident in his physical responses to the sight of the boy. Mann develops thetheme of same sex love primarily through his use of Greek mythology, particularly when he makescomparisons between von Aschenbachs love for Tadzio with Socratess love for Phaedrus and Apollos forHyacinthus. Ancient Greek culture was well known for its homosexual relationships, especially older Greekmens love for boys. Death in Venice is not, however, a cautionary tale about the dangers of homosexual love.Rather, Mann uses the relationship to point out the danger of letting emotions override reason and tounderscore the relationship between desire and death.The Art of Form Versus The Art of Emotion in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice
  8. 8. Page |8c. SymbolismsMann packs his story with symbols to imbue details and characters with deeper meaning and to create amodern myth out of von Aschenbachs tragic decline. The image of the cemetery at the start of the novel,for example, fore-shadows von Aschenbachs own death, and the appearance of the foppish drunken manon the boat to Venice symbolizes the very kind of person von Aschenbach will become after he abandonshis moral and aesthetic ideals. Venice itself, perhaps, is the most significant symbol in the story.VI. CONCLUSION As we read the novel Death in Venice, we can easily conclude that it’s a story about homosexualityand the psychology that goes with it. Although it is greatly considered as such, there is much more to thenovel than these themes. Most importantly, it is a story of the artist and the nature of his art. Thepublication of Thomas Mann’s diaries years after his death, declared latently at any rate his inclination tohomosexuality. But this reality, did not advocate the release of ―queer themes‖ in his work, rather, itsuggested that Mann’s sexual nature tell us a good deal about his understanding of covert emotion,repressed feelings, hidden desires—and above all, how this understanding generated a sublime inward,imaginative and spiritual activity. His exploration of homosexuality gave him a better understanding on howit is to be a social outsider. In this story, Mann suggests, with the influence of Freud and Nietzsche, thatthere should be a balance between conscious will and passionate drives in order to have a healthy state ofmind as an individual and thus contributing to a healthy and cultured society. He also believes that themaintenance of this balance will help create a true and inspired art.REFERENCESBergenholtz, Rita A. "Manns Death in Venice," in Explicator, Vol. 55, Spring, 1997, pp. 145–47.Dierks, Manfred, "Nietzsches The Birth of Tragedy and Manns Death in Venice," in Studies of Myth and Psychology inThomas Mann, Vittorio Klostermann, 1972, pp. 18–37.Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice and Other Short Stories (Translated and with an Introduction by Jefferson Chase andwith a New Afterword by Martin Swales).New York: New American Library.1999Picart, Caroline Joan S. Thomas Mann and Friedrich Nietzsche Eroticism, Death, Music and Laughter. Atlanta:Rodopi. 1999Semansky, Chris, Critical Essay on Death in Venice, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.SparkNotes Editors. (2006). SparkNote on Death in Venice. Retrieved April 18, 2010, from in Venice MannThe Art of Form Versus The Art of Emotion in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice
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