My rating: 5 of 5 stars
These last few months I’ve been glutted with bad fiction. Fiction so bad it has the audacity to think it’s good, without giving readers the pleasant balm of campy enjoyment. I needed something well-written.
I’ve tried reading Thomas Mann three times. The first time I read Death in Venice, I didn’t get farther than the first page. Felix Krull was strange, and Joseph and His Brothers was not what I expected. Reading Death in Venice a second time was…
Well, I read the whole thing in a day.
This is a novella of almost perfect form, where not a word is misplaced, not a scene is without several layers of meaning, not a visual image offered that doesn’t come back again in horrifying echoes. Some have compared it to a piece of music, and music does play an important role in the story. Mann describes the main character, also a writer, as someone who is able to catch “eros in the word.” He obviously meant himself, and he was right. The prose is simply gorgeous, luxurious, sultry, almost erotic, but still economical, with no hint of pompousness.
What makes it great literature is the complexity of its theme–the “tendency toward the abyss” hidden in any artistic temperament, especially when it gives way to passion. The gradual movement of Aschenbach’s obsession with the boy Tadzio from an elevated appreciation of classical Beauty to tawdry lust is terrifying, mostly because it describes a universal condition–the madness and insanity of any all-consuming passion.
Aschenbach is a sedate, “Protestant” (in Mann’s own words) man, his mind a well-tuned instrument that can turn any logical supposition inside out, arguing both sides of an issue equally well. And yet such a man turns out to be easy prey for an irrational passion that leads directly to his own death. Mann shows this vividly in the first “chapter,” where Aschenbach realizes a truth about himself:
“He had been in thrall to intellect, but exhausted the soil by excessive analysis and ground up the seed corn of growth; he had uncovered what is better kept hidden, made talent seem suspect, betrayed the truth about art–indeed, even as the sculptural vividness of his descriptions was giving pleasure to his more naive devotees and lifting their minds and hearts, he, this same youthful artist, had fascinated twenty-year-olds with his breathtaking cynicisms about the questionable nature of art and of the artist himself.”
Mann, chillingly, shows the reader that at the beginning of the twentieth century Western civilization has reached a dead end. Aschenbach, a “typical” representative of that civilization, has wedded himself to reason at the expense of faith, and too late has realized the deconstructive tendency of pure reason unleavened by emotion or mystery. And so, when he is beguiled by the sheer force of an irrational passion, he tries to rationalize it, finding all sorts of parallels to his depravity in antiquity, but ultimately the passion engulfs him, and his reason simply turns into insanity.
Mann was making a point about the decadence of European art at the turn of the century, but everything he says (and leaves unsaid) is still true of today:
“I must tell you that we artists cannot tread the path of Beauty without Eros keeping company with us and appointing himself our guide; yes, though we may be heroes in our fashion and disciplined warriors, yet we are like women, for it is passion that exalts us, and the longing of our soul must remain the longing of a lover–that is our joy and our shame. Do you see now perhaps why we writers can be neither wise nor dignified? that we necessarily go astray, necessarily remain dissolute emotional adventurers? The magisterial poise of our style is a lie and a farce, fame and social position are an absurdity, the public’s faith in us is altogether ridiculous, the use of art to educate the nation and its youth is a reprehensible undertaking which should be forbidden by law. For how can one be fit to be an educator when one has been born with an incorrigible and natural tendency toward the abyss?”
Ultimately, the theme of decadence of art leads naturally to a realization that Aschenbach’s “tendency” is a universal one. If today many people still think that humanity is a perfectible thing, tending constantly–“progressing,” so to speak–toward a glorious future, the tragedy of Aschenbach reminds them of how unlikely that is, as long as the “tendency toward the abyss” remains in all of us.