#ThomasMann #DeathinVenice #literature #mythicthemes #art #JosephCampbellFoundation
HAVE YOU EVER DISCOVERED an entirely unknown part of yourself? Something so surprising that you are shocked beyond belief? And what if it is an irrational passionate longing of which you can tell no one? If so, you have experienced the essence of Death in Venice by Thomas Mann.
If you haven’t read that novella, you may well have seen the movie. When I was in Venice almost fifteen years ago, I was haunted by that story as I wandered through the narrow, twisting calles. I spent much of my time taking as many photographs as I could. In fact, I entitled this photograph [above] taken of a cafe on San Marco, Death in Venice.
In that story, a very great writer, Aschenbach, has been propelled by unknown forces and unfamiliar emotions rising within himself to leave his home in Munich and travel to Venice. He is the cold and austere German heading south to a completely foreign setting where customs and culture are very different.
Exhausted from his writing and before leaving Munich, he has a “vision” which demands that he set out on his journey. I love the description Mann gives of the vision within the first few pages of the novella. He sees:
…a landscape, a tropical marshland, beneath a reeking sky, steaming, monstrous, rank—a kind of primeval wilderness world of islands, morasses, and alluvial channels. Hairy palm-trunks rose near and far out of lush brakes of fern, out of bottoms of crass vegetation, fat, swollen, thick with incredible bloom. [I quote only a part].
For me, this is a wonderful description of the wild, underworld within ourselves which we ignore in our daily lives. Some of us are not even aware of its existence. This passage above shows that Thomas Mann was superb at expressing mythic images in the written word. And so, the austere, intellectually exhausted Aschenbach is driven on his journey to Venice by this strange vision.
In Venice, Aschenbach experiences something completely new to him. He becomes passionately obsessed with a beautiful young man and, although he never actually approaches him, he cannot take his eyes from him and follows him about. This writer, who normally deals with purity of thought and ideals, is quite unprepared for the onslaught of hot emotion the young man’s presence arouses in him.
Aschenbach is renowned for his intellectual prowess and the young man is the epitome of beauty, grace, comeliness—like a Greek God. While telling himself that he prizes him for his beauty, he cannot admit to the element of sexual attraction—at least that is my reading of it.
And so, Aschenbach engages in all sorts of activities, such as having his hair dyed and his face made up so that he may appear younger and more attractive. On the one hand, we almost laugh at the great man’s foolishness, but at the same time we must acknowledge we all have done something equally human when in the grip of such strong emotion. And so, he has been propelled on this journey by the very earthy vision which I have quoted— but he never makes real contact and nothing ever comes of it. It seems he is far too busy coping with the interior war underway.
A plague is lurking about the city. Death is at every turn. One morning, after many have already fled the city, the writer dies sitting in his beach chair mesmerized by the god like beauty of the young man who is wading in the water on the beach.
I must admit that I had to read the novella three times before I really began to appreciate and understand it. After the first reading, I knew I had to return to it because there were gems buried in it—at least for a writer. Besides being a great story, Death in Venice is Thomas Mann’s sincere effort at describing the problems which writers [at least of his calibre] encounter.
Writers tend to hold themselves apart from everyone. They are considered observers of and commentators on humanity. In order to describe and comment on the human condition, it seems necessary to hold oneself aloof. And so, there is this tension between participating fully in one’s own life and emotions as a regular person and standing back, isolated as the observer. I think Thomas Mann has much to say about this aspect of the writer’s life in Death in Venice. In fact, Mann came up with a strange name for this quality or aspect of a writer—erotic irony.
Joseph Campbell had much to say about Thomas Mann and his writing.In his interview with Bill Moyers, Campbell, with reference to Thomas Mann, said, “The writer must be true to truth. And that’s a killer, because the only way you can describe a human being truly is by describing his imperfections. The perfect human being is uninteresting–the Buddha who leaves the world, you know. It is the imperfections of life that are lovable. And when the writer sends a dart of the true word, it hurts. But it goes with love. This is what Mann called “erotic irony,” the love for that which you are killing with your cruel, analytical word.” Funny way to love somebody!
I love to puzzle over these kinds of themes and, better still, to write novels about them. And so, when I learned that the Joseph Campbell Foundation had selected the novels of The Trilogy of Remembrance to be on its Amazon bookshelf of novels with
In the meantime take a look at this trailer from the Dirk Bogarde film of Death in Venice which will give you a flavour of the place and the story. Instead of portraying Aschenbach as a writer, Dirk Bogarde plays him as a conductor and composer of music, which I am sure is far easier to express in film. Enjoy!