Sunday, April 15, 2012

Week 12, Thomas Mann's Death in Venice


Chapter  1 (1840-43)

Von Aschenbach is taking a walk through Munich when we first meet him, and ends up reading the headstones in stonemasons' shops.  His work, which is that of a writer, demands "particular discretion, caution, penetration, and precision of will" 1841).  He is a meticulous craftsman.  The sight of a foreign traveler, even if the man is hostile, provokes von Aschenbach into a state of imagination and wanderlust.  He envisions tropical landscapes, primitive wildernesses and so forth (1841).  He is left when this vision fades successfully attempting to rationalize his need to travel somewhere beyond the mountain "rustic country house" (1842) that has been his only retreat over the years.  He is aware of a "growing lassitude, about which no one could be allowed to know" (1842) and which must not be allowed to impact or diminish the value of his meticulous work as a writer.  He is a perfectionist, and for this quality, we are told, "he had curbed and cooled his emotions, because he knew that emotion inclines one to satisfaction with a comfortable approximation, a half of perfection" (1842 bottom).  He has attained mastery as a writer, but even he feels that his work lacks "those earmarks of a fiery, playful fancy" (1843) that his audience might appreciate even more than perfection.  So von Aschenbach decides to do some safe traveling for a month or so.  The stranger who prompted this decision is by now nowhere to be found.

Chapter 2 (1843, 48)

The picture that emerges of von Aschenbach is that of a bourgeois intellectual whose art has grown dignified and respectable with age, to the point where they're including him now in the German educational system's equivalent of standard textbooks.  He is the son of a civil servant and his mother was a Bohemian music director's daughter (1843 bottom-44 top).  The author describes von Aschenbach's literary ascendancy in ideal terms, so that he seems like the very pattern of success as a career or professional author.  He aims to please the general public as well as a younger and more challenging audience.  Again and again, the author sets forth the strong work ethic of this writer: "he was not so much born for constant exertion as he was called to it (1844 middle).  He plans to live a long life so that his writing me deal with all the phases of a long life.  What he possesses is not so much what we might call romantic genius as a Protestant work ethic imported into the realm of artistic creation (1845 top).  His own watchword, we are told, is that "nearly everything achieving greatness did so under the banner of 'Despite' – despite grief and suffering…" (1845 middle).  There is a kind of passiveness to his whole ethos, for which the author St. Sebastian the martyr.  To me, the most significant passage in this chapter is the following: "von Aschenbach was the poet of all those who work on the edge of exhaustion, of the overburdened, worn down moralists of achievement who nonetheless still stand tall, those who, stunted in growth and short of means, use ecstatic feats of will and clever management to extract from themselves at least for a period of time the effects of greatness" (1846 top).  It seems to me that this sort of description damns von Aschenbach with faint praise.  His sort of greatness so-called is the only sort recognized by the mass of people he aims to please.  Is the only sort recognized by his age, apparently.  That does not necessarily make it a genuine greatness.  This is extremely clear towards the end of the first paragraph on 1846.  What is one to say about an author whose career can be summed up as a "defiant rise to dignity, beyond any twinge of doubt and of irony that might have stood in his way" (1846 middle)?

Around the time we learn that he is appearing in anthologies, we learn that he married only to have his wife die young.  He also has a daughter (18 47 3/4).  At the end of the chapter, the author explains the difference between art and other kinds of experience: "Art offers a deeper happiness, but it consumes one more quickly.  It engraves upon the faces of its servants the traces of imaginary, mental adventures and… Engenders in them a nervous sensitivity, and over-refinement, a weariness and an inquisitiveness such as are scarcely ever produced by a life full of extravagant passions and pleasures" (1848 top).

Chapter 3 (1848-66)

Von Aschenbach decides upon a visit to Venice after he becomes disappointed with the Adriatic island he had originally fixed on (1848).  Venice is an exotic and ancient place, and easy enough to get to for any European.  An eminently logical decision on the part of the good professor.  But we are soon made aware that this trip is not going to be a three-week tour, to borrow a line from Gilligan's Island.  The eerie appearance of an old merrymaker unsettles von Aschenbach: "scarcely had Aschenbach gotten a closer look at him when he realized with something like horror that this youth was not genuine" (1849).  The merrymaker is an elderly man dressed up with the trappings of youth.  He is inappropriate, untimely.  Wouldn't everyone around him notice?  Asks von Aschenbach to himself.  "It seemed to him that things were starting to take a turn away from the ordinary, as if a dreamy estrangement, a bizarre distortion of the world were setting in…" (1850 top).  Approaching Venice from the sea is a remarkable sight, finds von Aschenbach, but with regard to that elderly merrymaker, things only get more unsettling: the old fellow has had too much to drink and can't hold his liquor, so he makes a perfect fool of himself with obscene gestures and inappropriate gregariousness (1851 middle), which culminates in some babbling about beloveds.  The affinity between this old reveler and von Aschenbach will, of course, become ruefully apparent as the novella develops.

Von Aschenbach wants to go to the steamer landing, but his squirrely gondolier is determined to take him to the Lido because the steamer will not accept luggage.  A contest of wills follows (1853-54).  As soon as von Aschenbach lands and the gondolier takes off without collecting his fee, we find out that he did not have a license.  Nothing is as it should be; everything is "odd" (1855 top).  The narrator makes an interesting remark about the difference between introspective people and ordinary people: "A lonely, quiet person has observations and experiences that are at once both more indistinct and more penetrating than those of one more gregarious; his thoughts are weightier, stranger, and never without a tinge of sadness.  Images and perceptions that others might shrug off with a glance, a laugh, or a brief conversation occupy him unduly, become profound in his silence, become significant, become experience, adventure, emotion" (1854 bottom-55 top).  This kind of distinction should clue us in to the way Thomas Mann is going to treat conceptual oppositions, neither simply approving nor condemning them.

Von Aschenbach soon takes his fateful first glance at the young Polish boy with whom he will soon become obsessed: "Aschenbach noted with astonishment that the boy was perfectly beautiful.  His face, pale and gracefully reserved, was framed by honey-colored curls.  He had a straight nose and a lovely mouth and wore an expression of exquisite, divine solemnity" (1855).  Already von Aschenbach is comparing him to Greek statues.  It is not entirely certain whether this boy is in poor health or simply pampered, but von Aschenbach, we are told, believes the second hypothesis: "There is inborn in every artistic disposition an indulgent and treacherous tendency to accept injustice when it produces beauty and to respond with complicity and even admiration when the aristocrats of this world get preferential treatment" (1856).  The immediate effect of this vision upon him is something like intellectual stimulation, and von Aschenbach initially dismisses the whole affair: he "ultimately concluded that his thoughts and discoveries resembled those inspirations that come in dreams: they seem wonderful at the time, but in the sober light of day they show up as utterly shallow and useless" (1857 middle).  Nonetheless, his dreams seem disturbed after this initial meeting.  It is at this point that we hear about the stultifying, sultry and stagnant atmosphere in Venice, a phenomenon with which von Aschenbach is familiar since he has been to Venice before and left the place on account of the unhealthy weather.

Soon, von Aschenbach is remarking upon "the truly godlike beauty possessed by this mortal child" (1858 middle), and deciding that he will stay longer in spite of the weather.  The narrator lets us in on the fact that von Aschenbach has always felt a love of the sea, thanks to its indistinct and vague qualities.  "It was a forbidden affinity, directly contrary to his calling, and seductive precisely for that reason" (1859).  That is, his cultivation of meticulous stylistic perfection as a writer contrasts with his love of the immeasurable void.  However, no sooner are we let in on this insight than the void is traversed by none other than Tadzio: "the horizontal line of the sea's edge was crossed by a human figure" (1859 middle).  It is evident that the boy can't stand the sight of a Russian family, which only adds to his attractiveness to von Aschenbach.  One of the child's playmates kisses him, which leads von Aschenbach to quote from Xenophon (1860 bottom).

This way of interpreting the boy's every move and appearance becomes more intense soon enough: "The sight of this lively adolescent figure, seductive and chaste, lovely as a tender young god, emerging from the depths of the sky and the sea with dripping locks and escaping the clutches of the elements – it all gave rise to mythic images" (1861 top).  At this point, what are we to make of language such as, "A paternal kindness, an emotional attachment filled and moved his heart, the attachment that someone who produces beauty at the cost of intellectual self-sacrifice feels toward someone who naturally possesses beauty" (1861 middle)?  This is still the language of Platonism, and has about it the air of a rationalization of erotic interest.  As the weather worsens, von Aschenbach decides that the sickness attending upon the weather is too great to bear (1862 middle).  He really must leave this place.  Von Aschenbach consumes his final meal at the hotel, and just as he finishes, Tadzio walks by, prompting the scholar to bless the boy under his breath (1863 bottom).  And he thinks that's the end of it.  But it really isn't since he finds unacceptable that he has now twice been forced by his body's limitations to abandon this place that seems so conducive to the formulation and flourishing of ideals and spirit (1864 middle).  But a problem with his luggage solves the greater problem with his anguish over having to leave Venice.  Back to the hotel he goes (1865 top).  Von Aschenbach is not entirely unaware that his difficulty in leaving had most of all to do with the young boy he has taken such an interest in: "He felt the excitement in his blood, the joy and pain in his soul, and recognized that it was because of Tadzio that his departure had been so difficult" (1866 top).

Chapter 4 (1866-74)

The narrator's language becomes more and more imbued with mythic quality to characterize the state of von Aschenbach's mind.  See the very beginning of the chapter.  Tadzio is now the almost constant object of his attentions (1867 middle).  Most of page 1868 is taken up with a detailed description of the child's appearance as if he were a Greek statue.  And then follows this effusion: "Image and mirror!  His eyes embraced the noble figure there on the edge of the blue, and in a transport of delight he thought his gaze was grasping beauty itself, the pure form of divine thought, the universal and pure perfection that lives in the spirit and which here, graceful and lovely, presented itself for worship in the form of a human likeness and exemplar" (1868 bottom).  See also what is said about the way the sun "turns our attention from intellectual to sensuous matters" (1868 bottom).

Will add notes on Chapter 5 if time permits....

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