Review: ‘Death in Venice (& Other Tales)’ by Thomas Mann

por ponchoevsky


“What do you mean, Diotima,’ I said, ‘is love then evil and foul?’ ‘Hush,’ she cried; ‘must that be foul which is not fair?’ ‘Certainly,’ I said. ‘And is that which is not wise, ignorant? do you not see that there is a mean between wisdom and ignorance?’ ‘And what may that be?’ I said. ‘Right opinion,’ she replied.”
— Plato. The Symposium (trans. by Benjamin Jowett).

Fuzzy Logic is a paradigm often applied to Artificial Intelligence, though its applications may vary. It’s a kind of logic that was introduced in order to contrast boolean logic, wherein a variable’s value is strictly either 0 or 1. Therefore, in fuzzy logic a variable may fall in the range between 0 and 1, showing a more accurate approach on how, in the real world, things are (or at least should be). For example: according to some, a 400 page book may be mildly long, but for others, it may be slightly long, whereas for someone else it may be short. We classify things this way, in fuzzy logic, not just as either black or white, big or small, zero or one, right or wrong — and not even completely heterosexual or completely homosexual, in regards to sexuality. Thus, it shouldn’t be a scandal that a straight man feels attraction towards another man (age aside), like it happened to Thomas Mann in 1911 when he took a trip to Venice where he met Władzio: a boy who inspired the writer’s subject of beauty, his Phaedrus, his god, his literary inspiration and fascination. Whereas Mann wasn’t actually as absorbed as to stalking the boy throughout the Piazza di San Marco, he certainly was compelled by him, according to his wife. So one may say that this did happen. On the other hand, bringing back my introductory efforts to state that emotions aren’t ruled by boolean logic, Death in Venice is often regarded as a beautiful approach to queer literature — beautiful as we scarcely find in great classics — even though the author thereof isn’t exactly queer.

Mann transferred his experience in Venice to Gustav von Aschenbach, a 50(-ish) year-old writer and widower, who after an opening scene decides to take a trip to clear his mind in order for his work to bloom again. The aforementioned opening scene is that of a mysterious man in a cemetery and Aschenbach’s lugubrious omen and sudden decision to go to Venice; and from this point on one falls under a sort of sombre ambience and an ill spell that won’t leave the reader until the final paragraph. Many things happen, delightfully described, but as for the main thread, at his arrival at the hotel, and more precisely, at supper, Aschenbach meets Tadzio, a young boy who catches his attention immediately and its then when the plot begins to unravel into a deadly and dreadful ending. Mann keeps symbolisms constant and fate also plays an important part, as when he intends to leave Venice due to health issues, his luggage keeps him from doing so. He also makes allusions to greek mythology, especially Plato’s Symposium, relating Aschenbach and Tadzio to Socrates and Phaedrus in a reverie of sorts and exposing the greek philosopher’s ideas of beauty, love and the god thereof — that is Eros, who resides in the loving rather than the beloved. Also, Mann, in my opinion, tried to un-taboo the love between two men whose ages are disproportionate using Socrates’s ideal of love and to remark that there’s nothing despicable about the beauty of the senses that resides in youth drawn to the kind of beauty that is rather spiritual and resides in maturity — that love as we know it is rather fuzzy than boolean, and it is always beautiful and somewhat artistic. The dark side of it lies in the abuse and the excess of this passion, when it becomes dangerous not only to oneself but also to the beloved, having both well-beings at risk, like Aschenbach did keeping the truth about Venice to himself, in a frenzy and feverish delusion that his love for Tadzio was still pure.

Nothing is more bizarre, more ticklish, than a relationship be-tween two people who know each other only with their eyes—who encounter, observe each other daily, even hourly, never greeting, never speaking, constrained by convention or by caprice to keep acting the indifferent strangers. They experience discomfort and overwrought curiosity, the hysteria of an unsatis-fied, unnaturally stifled need to recognize and to exchange, and they especially feel something like a tense mutual esteem. For people love and honor someone so long as they cannot judge him, and yearning is a product of defective knowledge.

Death in Venice is doubtless an incredible masterpiece, not only because of its lyrical and delightful prose and because it challenges the reader to bring down the barriers of taboo down, but also because of this sense of personal approach that makes a great work great: that is, the writer’s ability to touch and kindle our souls — like Mann himself wrote:

“But even on a personal level, art is, after all, a more sublime life. It delights more deeply, it consumes more swiftly. It carves the traces of imaginary, intellectual adventures into the features of its servant.”

The rest of the stories are magnificent as well — not as engrossing as the Venice but still worth reading in order to appreciate how most of their characters share the same artistic, obsessive and solitary nature of Aschenbach; like Tonio Kröger: a literate young man who struggles with life in the arena of literature; or Spinell, a lonesome writer in a sanatorium, found in Tristan, the novella that would later develop into The Magic Mountain. Overall, there’s bleakness in Mann’s world, but then again, there is always beauty to be found in the bleak.

Thomas Mann captivated me literarily but also personally, and part of me died with Aschenbach in his efforts to reach beauty, taking my memories and experiences as nourishment. In dust I became and I shall float by the ill weather of Mann’s Venice, eternally tracing beauty and love, to which, I think, I’ll eventually approach by the way of literature.

“Never had he felt the pleasure of words more sweetly, never had he knowm so deeply that Eros is in words as in the dangerously delicious hours when he sat at his crude table under the aiming, with his idol in full view, the music of that voice in his ears: he was modeling his little essay on Tadzio’s beauty, forming that page and a half of exquisite prose whose purity, nobility, and quivering emotional tension would shortly gain the admiration of many.”