Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

Oct 2010

(Novella) Death in Venice by: Thomas Mann

(Reaction) An Artist's Romance by: Ms. Pickles

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Thomas Mann's Death in Venice is a love story in more ways than one. More than the story of Gustav von Aschenbach's infatuation with the Polish boy Tadzio in Lido, Venice, it is the love story of the writer and his art, and the relationship of the writer with the artful life, where dreamy romance does not always prevail, and is in fact always grounded by reality and all its incidental existential concerns.

"The issue... is not Aschenbach's obsession with Tadzio but rather the way that this fatal love casts light on the artist's whole career." Aschenbach's fatal infatuation with Tadzio demonstrates the emotional fallibility of a rational, disciplined artist living during the turn of the 20th century, a pre-World War epoch very much concerned with moral principles and existential veracities. An epitome of the rational artist disciplined since youth to venerate order and intellection, Aschenbach embodies the realist counterreaction to the Romantic priority of feelings and passion; he retains the rationalistic, humanist prioritization of reason, human achievement, and universal morals. He embodies the traits and idiosyncrasies of the early 20th century writer living in a time of rapid change, existential issues, and sociopolitical upheaval:

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.

Aschenbach's life represents the struggle of the modern artist to perform well on the tightrope of the literary life, which also doubles as a taut continuum with unruly emotions on one end and a highly controlled intellect on the other. A fall from this tightrope-continuum is a lethal accident preventable only by gradual movements, if not by decisive non-vacillation alone, to and from the emotional and intellectual extremes. A sudden inclination to one end of the gradient causes imbalance and, if unmitigated, a sordid crash to failure marked by untempered psychological action.

It is his psychological traversal of this tightrope/continuum that distinguishes Aschenbach's story as a modernist one: it presages the existential unrest of modern individuals in the 20th century, especially of literary artists living and writing lives dominated both by feelings, reason, and life's uncertainties. And although Mann's novella does not conform to the modernist rejection of classical and traditional forms and characteristic move towards metanarrative, its realistic narrative contains a "highly organized literary structure with subtly interrelated themes and images that built up rich associations of ideas." This free association of ideas provides the novella with a formal modernist element.

Aschenbach is a literal and figurative product of both intellect and feelings-dual entities often considered as binaries with proscriptive definitions. He "was born the son of a career civil servant" and "[h]is ancestors had been officers, judges, and government functionaries, men who had led upright lives of austere decency devoted to the service of king and country." He inherited his literary, intellectual austerity, disciplined productivity, and "sober conscientiousness" from his paternal lineage, while his impulses and passions are foreign, coming from his foreign mother.

Mann's consignation of the intellectual to the masculine and the emotional to the feminine is noteworthy-a layered enrichment of the dualism that has plagued artists since Greek classical antiquity. This consignation, coupled with the prioritization of one heritage and the suppression of the other, however, aside from just delineating the binary relations of the emotion and the intellect, provides Aschenbach with his psychological dilemma, which cannot be solved merely through focus and suppression.

Emotions and reason need not be enemies of each other, and a fatal imbalance is what occurs when undue emphasis is placed on one and not the other. Aschenbach's lifelong prioritization of the intellect and suppression of passions gave way to an existential malaise he thought curable only by spatial estrangement, but this unchecked imbalance gave way only to psychological displacement and a disastrous reversal of his inclinations-a dismissal of self-discipline and a careless devotion to his pederastic passion.

Aschenbach's fate provides an insight to the human-artist condition: feelings and reason should be viewed as a circular gradient, and one must employ a harmonious combination of the two that rejects the terminal essentialism of polarities. But the modern individual might ask: Is it really possible to arrive at a harmonious emotional and intellectual combination? This is the interest of modern writers, and their fictional characters explore the possibilities of differing combinations in relation to being. Existential vicissitudes and universalities, other characteristic subjects of modernist literature, are also tackled concurrently in Mann's novella with art, the artist's nature, and moral obligations in the artistic search for truth and beauty. The modern artistic sensibility is vulnerable to a myriad of psychological concerns, and no answers can be found in the literary craft, but a love of art and life produces various intellectual sojourns to the heart and emotional reactions to thoughts, such that felt-thoughts become beautiful truths: "A writer's chief joy is that thought can become all feeling, that feeling can become all thought."

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