When I was called out for teaching some provocative contexts in my “Strange Children” course this quarter, my supervisor came to my defense by saying, “Well, it’s not like you’re teaching Death in Venice, or anything.” I had heard of Thomas Mann’s novella — and really enjoyed reading the obscure The Transposed Heads, which I consider a really masterful work despite some scathing criticisms to the contrary — but had never read it. I headed to the library and checked it out right away. Would Mann prove to be more dirty and provocative than Alice’s Adventures? Was it possible?
Death in Venice (German, 1912) is plenty provocative and dirty, alright, if you’re into affect theory. If you’re a gender or sexuality theorist, however, I must say, it misses the mark somewhat. The story alarmed me much more for its depiction of feeling than it ever could have for its wispy, barely lukewarm invocation of pedophilia.
After four pages of Mann’s text I was struck by his fierce exploration of both hidden and blatant affect — which occurs sometimes simultaneously. (In fact, I am determined to teach it as a course on emotion in literature.)
The foreboding lifelessness that stretches itself out before Gustav Aschenbach’s life can be summarized by a series of words/phrases that arise consistently or at key moments, such as: “red,” “false midsummer,” or “diseased city.” But the “unchastity and fury of decay” that epitomizes Aschenbach’s experience in Venice — and with the sickly Polish “god” with whom he falls in love from afar — is best articulated through Mann’s overuse of adjectives that relate directly to rampant emotion and, conversely, emotionlessness.
Feeling is a sense like smell. The graying legend Aschenbach is surrounded by smells (of hospital, gaiety, food, beach) that bring out depth of affect which runs the gamut of “sinister revels of emotion:” sympathy, fear, pity, hopelessness, desire, shame, elation, anxiety, satisfaction, etc.
For Mann’s protagonist, “passion is our exultation” but also his demise. Passion is the strong feeling of desire or excitement, but I am also reminded of the definition of passion from House of Leaves: “Passion has little do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance. Like patience, passion comes from the same Latin root: pati. It does not mean to flow with exuberance. It means to suffer.”
Aschenbach’s passion reflects both definitions: it is suffering and jubilation.
Yet, despite the war of feeling that he locks in his aged body, he shows little external signal of such power until, on the day of his death, he heads to the salon to be made up in a fashion that reflects the grotesque fop whom he criticizes on the ship. The disease that finally kills him seems less the sickness of Venice from the Middle East (which reminded me somewhat of Bruges-la-Morte) and more the inevitable finale of emotion of this caliber.
Death is the ultimate portrayal of patience.
Is it, then, a useful symbol of passion? For Aschenbach, such seems to be the case.
So beautiful, in fact, that I almost forgot about the Platonic “beautiful boy,” that god Eros who catalyzes the war. Then again, Mann suggests that this war was raging before Tadzio comes along, doesn’t he? I was inclined to toss Tadzio away.
He is like the wine that brings out the flavor of an aged and beautiful cheese.