Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach 
by Philip Kitcher.
Columbia, 254 pp., £20.50, November 2013, 978 0 02 311626 1
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The double centenary​ in 2012 of the publication of Kafka’s The Judgment and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice was marked only, to my knowledge, by a single conference, in California. Yet these two stories represented crucial breakthroughs for writers who came to dominate the German literature of the age. Both experienced a creative liberation thanks to forces seemingly beyond the conscious efforts that were getting them nowhere – in old-fashioned terms, thanks to inspiration.

Where Kafka felt he had been splashing about in the shallows, he now felt, as he wrote through one night without a break, that he was being carried forward by a tide. The Judgment opened the way into a series of existential explorations like no others: The Trial, The Castle, In the Penal Colony and the rest. Mann, meanwhile, had spent years brooding over ambitious projects on which he couldn’t get started, when a chance encounter on holiday generated new emotions in him and he too, as he later wrote, felt himself being ‘serenely carried along in an absolute movement’. In Death in Venice he was able for the first time to reconcile the different layers of a story – the real and the symbolic, the psychological and the mythical – and so to enrich realism without abandoning it, a process which led on to the social and historical analysis to be found on a grand scale in The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus.

Mann’s 1912 novella was also to have a powerful influence on social perceptions of homosexuality. His arch-enemy Alfred Kerr was not far wrong with his sneer that Mann had ‘made pederasty palatable to the middle classes’. The novella’s effect was all the stronger for not being – Philip Kitcher misreads it – about ‘a closet homosexual’ who has ‘refused to acknowledge his sexual inclinations’. Unlike his fully self-aware creator, who, though never a practising homosexual (‘how can one sleep with men?’ he asked in a 1950 diary entry), was all his life an avid voyeur of young males, Aschenbach is initially taken by surprise as he slowly realises that it was having to leave Tadzio that had made his departure from Venice (since aborted) such a bitter prospect: ‘He looked into himself, his brows rose, an attentive smile of interested curiosity crossed his lips.’ As a younger man Aschenbach has been happily heterosexual: ‘Former feelings, early delicious entanglements of the heart which had died out in the strict discipline of his life and were now returning so strangely transformed – he recognised them with a confused, astonished smile.’ The orientation may change but the erotic emotion is a constant, which is why, in the Joseph and His Brothers books, Mann, like Proust, can produce persuasive narratives of heterosexual feeling.

One of the strengths of Death in Venice is the delicate pacing of Aschenbach’s gradual self-discovery, as he passes from admiration of Tadzio’s beauty, to fatherly interest, a declaration of love, obsessive pursuit and orgiastic dream to the infection with cholera and the half-conciliatory coda of his death on the beach. The moral development, however, is not strictly linear, and was plainly long unresolved in the writing process. When Mann called the story ‘an impossible conception’, he was surely trying to decide whether to put an affirmative or a negative slant on Aschenbach’s infatuation. The final outcome is readable both ways. There is enough outright condemnation of Aschenbach to satisfy a puritanical German public that had been scandalised by recent court cases and the fall of Oscar Wilde, and to keep Mann himself safe from suspicion. Homosexual critics have called Mann cowardly not to have shown Aschenbach in a more positive light. Seen in the context of the time, however, Mann had a lot to lose by obviously sympathising, let alone identifying with Aschenbach – a settled family life, an elevated place in Munich society. There is defiance all the same in the words that lead up to Aschenbach’s declaration, ‘I love you,’ words that are ‘the standing formula of yearning, – impossible here, absurd, depraved, ludicrous and sacred still, no less venerable even here’. The master touch is the pivotal ‘and’, where one would have expected ‘but’, which serves to lend an equal weight to the two opposed views.

For all that, ‘the only way out is tragedy,’ as Mann has it in one of his work notes for the story, even if at the outset a different option had presented itself. ‘Why do we have Death in Venice and not Rebirth of a Writer?’ as Kitcher shrewdly asks. As his ship docks, Aschenbach wonders if Venice is going to provide, not just ‘a new’ but, in an early variant, ‘a renewing emotion’. He does his writing on the beach, with Tadzio in full view to serve as his inspiration. According to Plato, whose Symposium and Phaedros Mann had absorbed, creativity is one of the ‘higher’ fulfilments of love, and looking back in 1919 he re-created that inspiration: ‘Do you remember? A higher intoxication, an extraordinary emotion came over you and cast you down, your head in your hands. Hymnically your soul arose, your mind in turmoil pressed through tears into song.’ The confession is in verse, just as metrical fragments lie scattered about the final prose text of the novella. That is the measure of how different a work Death (except then it wouldn’t have involved a death) in Venice might have become. In the event, the episode of renewed creativity falls victim to a moralising imperative. Plato’s ideal is undermined by the power of Dionysos. The act of writing leaves Aschenbach ‘exhausted, shattered, as if his conscience were accusing him after acts of dissipation’.

There are conflicts and dilemmas in the contemporary background. To have written something ‘hymnic’, if only in prose, might have made Mann a Dichter, a title he coveted, and a loaded term of the day that Kitcher might have gone into more thoroughly. From Romanticism onwards (German Romanticism is quite unlike the French or English versions), a powerful anti-intellectual strand dismissed any display of critical intelligence in favour of a half-mystical, naive spontaneity. What marked the writer out as a Dichter, in verse or in prose, was an immediate response to beauty, a refusal of analysis, an acceptance of the world and society as they are. Such writing had affinities with a visual art that celebrated only the surface of things. Even such great writers as Lessing or Schiller could be patronised by critics as having been too ‘conscious’, too cerebral. As their modern successor, Thomas Mann, with his strong analytical bent and decadent subject matter (Buddenbrooks recounts the social and biological ‘Decline of a Family’), found himself written off as a mere Schriftsteller, or littérateur. Mann may have tried to discount this as ‘fashionable snobbery’ but it rankled and he desperately wanted to show his critics they were mistaken. Surely Buddenbrooks had had enough ‘plastic’ embodiment of its theme of degeneration to qualify him as a Dichter? But all around him in 1910 he could see young writers set on regeneration, threatening his own status. He watched some of his established contemporaries climbing onto the bandwagon: ‘The demand of the times is to cultivate everything healthy in us.’ Why fall out with contemporary taste? And now that he was entering on his maturity – he was 35 – wasn’t a change of approach a natural development? Or was it merely an excuse for blatant career management?

Aschenbach is 53. What would it be like to be that much further down the road and to have completed all the grand projects Mann couldn’t get started on: a comprehensive social novel designed to repeat the success of Buddenbrooks in the more sophisticated setting of Munich; a historical novel about Frederick the Great calculated to make Mann a truly national Dichter; and a magisterial essay on the contemporary cultural state of Germany that might have settled the Dichter question once and for all. Mann grants Aschenbach these titles in the account of his past career. Crucially, the mature ‘master’ has turned away from an analytical to a more simply descriptive view of the world, and he no longer has any truck with the destabilising liberal principle of ‘tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.’ He has duly been honoured, indeed ennobled: he is ‘von Aschenbach’, on a par with the Munich painters and portraitists of high society, von Stuck, von Lenbach, those habitual dinner guests of the king of Bavaria, all too painfully evident figures in Mann’s Munich, where no writer had ever received any such honour. ‘Von’ Aschenbach was displaced wishful thinking (though ‘Thomas von Mann’ would have sounded grotesque).

From the perspective of Mann’s career, Death in Venice in all honesty and integrity sets up an experiment. What might look like a vicarious basking in success and social acceptance becomes a hard look at the possible consequences of a changed aesthetic. A clear line runs from Aschenbach’s rejection of an analytic outlook to his infatuation with Tadzio. Being ‘no longer inclined to self-criticism’, there is no regaining moral control. When he learns the truth about the cholera outbreak, not only does he not leave Venice, he doesn’t even warn Tadzio’s mother, lest she take the boy for ever out of reach. The two decisions are brutally condensed into a rare short sentence: ‘He kept quiet and stayed.’ (‘Er schwieg und blieb.’) This is where the pursuit of beauty and the renunciation of clarity have led. That Aschenbach ‘rightly turns away from “knowledge”’ (the emphasis is Kitcher’s) could not be more wrong. What is described as the ‘profound decision of a master to deny knowledge, to reject it, to pass it by with head held high’ has a ponderous dogmatism that is surely self-condemnatory.

So much for the protagonist; where does it leave the author and his own aesthetic? Mann has celebrated Tadzio’s beauty as richly as any Dichter could; but the pathology of a fatal infatuation is another ‘decadent’ subject and has been treated in the old analytical way, to the point of the ‘tout comprendre’ that Aschenbach has rejected. Mann has remained true to himself. In this larger frame, beyond eros and inspiration, an extraordinary coherence has been handed him by a series of accidents. The bizarre incidents on the journey to Venice, the sinister figures he meets on the way, the accident of cholera breaking out (a plague of ‘Indian’ origins, just like the Indian origins of Dionysos, the ‘alien’ god so central to Nietzsche’s and hence Mann’s own psychology from earliest days): these elements ‘only needed putting together’ to make a pattern that raises Aschenbach’s accidental death to a destiny. To remove or dismiss any element of that pattern is to destroy the work’s vision. Kitcher, alas, wants to ‘liberate’ us from the notion that Aschenbach dies from cholera, by claiming it is from a heart attack. This, in the teeth of extensive accounts of the plague in Mann’s work notes and text, specifically of the variant Cholera Sicca which shows up in Aschenbach’s symptoms. Nor, according to Kitcher, are we to think of his intoxication as Dionysian. Disingenuously, the violent dream that finally breaks down his moral resistance is called a ‘Bacchic’ orgy, replacing intimations of the dark Lord of the Id with remembered images of a harmless old drunkard. To question the cholera diagnosis and the Dionysian power is to reduce Mann’s taut web of connections – his Beziehungen, a favourite term – to a limp assemblage of random motifs.

Visconti’s​ film version of the story hardly retains the motifs, let alone their links. Instead, it invents another artist, a composer, whose new symphony is publicly shouted down, whose close friend violently berates him (no classic success or unquestioned social standing here), and has him fall for what Kitcher calls an ‘extraordinary flirt’ who is more nearly an adolescent than the beach playmates Tadzio and Jasch (no link here between a passion and the artist’s ‘renewal’). It may be set in Venice and called Death in Venice but it has nothing to do with Thomas Mann. Christening the ship that conveys the composer the Esmeralda, after the prostitute who infects Mann’s fictive composer in Doctor Faustus three and a half decades later, adds not complexity but confusion. Presumably, the novella’s superficial Mahler motifs – Aschenbach has Mahler’s first name and his physical appearance – were the reason. Kitcher’s long sections on Mahler are connected to the novella by the thinnest of threads.

Remarkably, he spends less time on Benjamin Britten’s opera, where there is so much more worth noting and admiring. The composer and his librettist, Myfanwy Piper, faced an uphill task in creating a sung part for a silent protagonist, who has to make more things explicit to the audience than the character in the novella is fully aware of. But in return the stage version can bring out some of Mann’s more subtle motifs. The sinister figures whom Aschenbach encounters – the wanderer, the grotesque old fop, the ship’s purser, the gondolier – are all embodied in a single baritone role, with the hotel manager aptly added in as the final agent of dispatch (‘Who comes and goes is my affair’). Aschenbach’s inner conflict is embodied in the roles allotted to the gods. Dionysos is one more voice in the baritone complex, his defeated rival Apollo a contrasting countertenor. The power of the music apart, there is a coherence to the opera that is true to Mann’s story, and despite its tragic ending, the work represented for Britten ‘everything that Peter and I have stood for’.

Kitcher’s sympathy with literature is not untypical of contemporary philosophers. It leads him to claim indeed that literature can do – can be – philosophy inasmuch as it shows rather than tells, as against philosophy’s ‘apparent ability to keep talking for ever’. He has read widely in Mann’s fiction and the diaries, engages with Mann scholarship in a civilised manner, and forbears from wagging a philosophical finger at any loose conceptual thinking. (Hegel, who thought philosophy would eventually make art superfluous, must be turning in his grave.) Where literature and criticism have traditionally been regarded as at best dealing in ‘soft’ philosophy, Kitcher leaves the impression that, in its accessibility and direct engagement with specific ways of life, it is really dealing in the hard stuff.

It’s a puzzle, though, why Death in Venice of all books should have seemed to fit the bill for the sorts of inquiry Kitcher conducts. Perhaps because it is concerned with the effects a writer’s work may have on the society around him, and – between the lines – with the effects of that society on his writing. Kitcher too easily assumes that in the past the solid citizen Aschenbach has been an educator to his nation when in fact the reverse is the case. It is he who has adjusted his career to the prevailing taste of the times: society has moulded him. That his prose has been anthologised in school textbooks signals not leadership but conformity. Mann later said that Death in Venice had ‘castigated pedagogical pretensions’ he had begun to have. Aschenbach’s adoption of a simplified ethical code makes of him what Nietzsche called ‘the artist as valet of a morality’.

There is a more substantial lesson still to be learned from what became of those alleged or would-be Dichter who around 1910 were blithely rejecting ‘decadent’ subjects for a new ‘healthy’ literature. An initially harmless ‘homeland art’ that set the values of the wholesome countryside against those of the decadent city grew into a literature of ‘blood and soil’, whose exponents polemicised against what they called ‘asphalt literature’. In the 1920s, a völkisch group argued these cultural issues in the Prussian Academy against the likes of Thomas and Heinrich Mann. After 1933, when these pillars of the Weimar Republic had resigned or been expelled, along with the academy’s Jewish members, the fellow-travellers basked in the favour of the authorities who were simultaneously pouring scorn on ‘degenerate art’. By the late 1930s, Aschenbach had become for Mann a political harbinger. As an artist ‘seeking new beauty, a simplification of the soul, in reaction against the psychologism and relativism of the turn of the century, seeking a new dignity beyond analysis and even knowledge’, he represented ‘tendencies of the time that were in the air long before the word “fascism” existed, and are hardly recognisable in the political form. But they are spiritually connected with it and helped to prepare it. I had them as much as anybody in me.’ The guilt he felt at having been even tempted down that path was part of what motivated him to write Doctor Faustus in 1943. By then Mann, as a leading intellectual opponent of Nazism, really was ‘praeceptor Germaniae’ to an unruly class that largely went on rejecting him and his analysis even after – or because – the German catastrophe had proved him right.

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