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Death in Venice ()


Nobel Prize Winners

    Although he was to remember his friendship with painter Paul Ehrenberg as the love of his life, in
    1905 he married Katia Pingsheim, who came from a well-to-do Munich Jewish family. He
    remained married to her until his death 50 years later. In marrying her, he sacrificed his natural
    inclinations for social convention.

    Mann found very young men beautiful, but his homosexuality remained hidden for 50 years after
    his death, when his diaries were released. These revealed that he was prone to fits of nausea,
    nervous, trembling and convulsive sobbing quite at odds with his public image of elegant,
    self-assured aloofness. He was fortunate that the Nazis never discovered his secret.
        -BBC Education: Biography of Thomas Mann

The quote above is merely one of a number of similar sentiments that I found when I was looking for links for this review and I must admit, they completely mystify me.  How could anyone read this story and not realize that Mann was an almost heroically repressed homosexual?

Death in Venice tells the story of Gustav von Aschenbach, a German writer, who decides that he needs a holiday to relieve the stress of his "nerve-taxing" work.  Eventually he arrives in Venice and conceives a passionate crush on a a fourteen year old boy named Tadzio.  As he grows ever more obsessed with the boy, Aschenbach's mind becomes increasingly unbalanced.  He takes to following the lad around and refuses to leave Venice despite an outbreak of cholera, virtually courting death in order to indulge his desires.  Finally, as Tadzio frolics in the waves at the beach, Aschenbach dies quietly in a beach chair.

Just in case the reader hasn't gotten the hint, Mann helpfully provides Aschenbach one extended soliloquy:

    For mark you, Phaedrus, beauty alone is both divine and visible; and so it is the sense way, the
    artist's way, little Phaedrus, to the spirit. But, now tell me, my dear boy, do you believe that such a
    man can ever attain wisdom and true manly worth, for whom the path to the spirit must lead
    through the senses? Or do you rather think-for I leave the point to you-that it is a path of perilous
    sweetness, a way of transgression, and must surely lead him who walks in it astray? For you know
    that we poets cannot walk the way of beauty without Eros as our companion and guide.  We may be
    heroic after our fashion, disciplined warriors of our craft, yet are we all the women, for we exult in
    passion, and love is still our desire-our craving and our shame. And from this you will perceive that
    we poets can be neither wise nor worthy citizens. We must needs be wanton, must needs rove at
    large in the realm of feeling. Our magisterial style is all folly and pretence, our honourable repute a
    farce, the crowd's belief in us is merely laughable.  And to teach youth, or the populace, by means
    of art is a dangerous practice and ought to be forbidden. For what good can an artist be as a teacher,
    when from his birth up he is headed direct for the pit? We may want to shun it and attain to honour
    in the world; but however we turn, it draws us still. So, then, since knowledge might destroy us, we
    will have none of it. For knowledge, Phaedrus, does not make him who possesses it dignified or
    austere.  Knowledge is all-knowing, understanding, forgiving; it takes up no position, sets no store
    by form. It has compassion with the abyss-it is the abyss. So we reject it, firmly, and henceforward
    our concern shall be with beauty only. And by beauty we mean simplicity, largeness, and renewed
    severity of discipline; we mean a return to detachment and to form. But detachment, Phaedrus, and
    preoccupation with form lead to intoxication and desire, they may lead the noblest among us to
    frightful emotional excesses, which his own stern cult of the beautiful would make him the first to
    condemn. So they too, they too, lead to the bottomless pit. Yes, they lead us thither, I say, us who
    are poets-who by our natures are prone not to excellence but to excess.

Mann, who had studied and was influenced by Nietzsche, here posits the artist as a Dionysian, drawn to the purely sensual.  But at the same time he recognizes that this attraction to the non-rational realm is self destructive; yield to desire and you end up, like Aschenbach, first insane and then dead.  The artist is counterpoised against the wise and rational citizenery, whom Nietzsche termed Apollonians (see Orrin's review of The Birth of Tragedy (1872)(Friedrich Nietzsche 1844-1900) (Grade: C).  I've tried several times to read Mann's novels--Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus--and I have to admit I find them unreadable, but supposedly this struggle between reason and passion is a consistent theme.

Yet when Mann's diaries were published in the 1980's--revealing a man who, despite a successful marriage lasting half a century and producing six children, was continually smitten with young men, typically the waiters in his favorite restaurants--the critics claim to have been shocked by the revelation of his homoerotic yearnings.  Significantly, there is no evidence that he acted on these impulses.  He appears to have submerged his carnal appetite for boys in favor of a conventional family life.  I simply do not understand why this should have surprised anyone; it seems perfectly consistent with the vision of this story that he would have chosen not to end up like Aschenbach himself.

This is not a terribly enjoyable story to read and there aren't really any sympathetic characters.  Nor do I find Mann's prose particularly compelling; as I mentioned, I've found his other works to be pretty tough sledding.  But taken purely as a cautionary tale, it's at least mildly worthwhile reading.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C)

  

Websites:

Thomas Mann Links:
-ESSAY: In Today's Terror, An Old Allegory Gets a New Life: Has Abu Musab al-Zarqawi been reading Thomas Mann? (BRET STEPHENS, August 19, 2005, Opinion Journal)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "thomas mann"
    -ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA: Mann, Thomas
    -Thomas Mann (1875-1955)(kirjasto)
    -Thomas Mann Winner of the 1929 Nobel Prize (Nobel Site)
    -THOMAS MANN: 1929 Nobel Laureate in Literature (Nobel Internet Archive)
    -ARCHIVE: Thomas Mann (New York Review of Books)
    -Who's Who in Nazi Germany: Mann, Thomas (1875-1955) (Routledge)
    -The Columbia Encyclopedia: Sixth Edition.  2000:   Mann, Thomas
    -THOMAS MANN (1875-1955)(Books Unlimited UK)
    -Thomas Mann (Knitting Circle)
    -THOMAS MANN MUSEUM
    -Thomas Mann is the Man!
    -DISCUSSION: Thomas Mann Hatteras Lighthouse
    -ESSAY: Eye of the Beholder: Thomas Mann's Death in Venice
    -ESSAY: Carlos Fuentes writes about 'Thomas Mann in Love'
    -ONLINE STUDYGUIDE : Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (Katie Mannheimer , Spark Notes)
    -OUTLINE: Death in Venice
    -REVIEW: Second Look : JOSEPH AND HIS BROTHERS (1933-44), BY  THOMAS MANN  (PETER CRAVEN, The Age)
    -REVIEW : of Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann Translated by John E. Woods and The Castle by Franz Kafka Translated with a preface by Mark Harman    (Steve Dowden, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW : of Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann. Translated by John E. Woods (Kenneth Baker, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature by Anthony Heilbut (STEPHEN GRAY, Electronic Mail and Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Thomas Mann A Life By Donald Prater (Brigitte Frase, Hungry Mind Review)
    -REVIEW: Gordon A. Craig: The Mann Nobody Knew, NY Review of Books
       Thomas Mann: Eine Biographie by Klaus Harpprecht
       Thomas Mann: A Biography by Ronald Hayman
       Thomas Mann: A Life by Donald Prater
       Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature by Anthony Heilbut
       Tagebücher 1954-1955 by Thomas Mann and edited by Inge Jens
    -REVIEW: of THOMAS MANN A Biography. By Ronald Hayman (Theodore Ziolkowski, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THOMAS MANN A Biography By Ronald Hayman  (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THOMAS MANN The Making of an Artist, 1875-1911. By Richard Winston (Peter Gay, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Gabriele Annan: The Magician, NY Review of Books
       Thomas Mann: The Making of an Artist by Richard Winston
    -REVIEW: Thomas Mann, Death in Venice (Pieris Maida Berreitter)
    -REVIEW: W.H. Auden: Lame Shadows, NY Review of Books
       Tonio Kröger and Other Stories by Thomas Mann and translated by David Luke
    -REVIEW:  Stephen Spender: The Inner Mann, NY Review of Books
       Letters by Thomas Mann, selected and translated by Richard Winston, and Clara Winston
    -REVIEW: Robert Craft: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, NY Review of Books
       Thomas Mann Symposium by Claude Hill, chairman
       Katia Mann: Unwritten Memoirs by Katia Mann
       The Hesse/Mann Letters: The Correspondence of Herman Hesse and Thomas Mann, 1910-1955
       Mythology and Humanism: The Correspondence of Thomas Mann and Karl Kerényi
       An Exceptional Friendship: The Correspondence of Thomas Mann and Erich Kahler
    -REVIEW: Robert Craft: The 'Doctor Faustus' Case, NY Review of Books
       Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann and translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter
       The Story of a Novel: The Genesis of "Doctor Faustus" by Thomas Mann
       Thomas Mann's "Doctor Faustus": The Sources and Structure of the Novel by Gunilla Bergsten
       Faust as Musician: A Study of Thomas Mann's Novel "Doctor Faustus" by Patrick Carnegy
    -REVIEW: Gordon A. Craig: Mein liebes Tagebuch, NY Review of Books
       Thomas Mann: Diaries 1918-1939 selection and foreword by Hermann Kesten
    -REVIEW: of THOMAS MANN DIARIES 1918-1939, 1918-1921, 1933-1939 (Ernst Pawel, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: James Joll: Mann and the Magician, NY Review of Books
       Pro and Contra Wagner by Thomas Mann, translated by Allan Blunden
    -REVIEW: of REFLECTIONS OF A NONPOLITICAL MAN By Thomas Mann (Walter Laqueur, NY Times Book Review)

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