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Love in Venice

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Everett Collection
Björn Andrésen as Tadzio and Dirk Bogarde as Gustav von Aschenbach in Luchino Visconti’s film Death in Venice (1971)

“This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach,” remembered Thomas Mann’s long-suffering wife near the end of her life. “He didn’t pursue him through all of Venice—that he didn’t do—but the boy did fascinate him.” In May 1911, she, her husband, and his brother Heinrich arrived at the Hotel des Bains, on the Venetian Lido, and Thomas Mann developed a fixation with a young Polish boy. Over the next year, he wrote Death in Venice, turning his infatuation into the fatal passion of Gustav von Aschenbach, an aging, famous writer, for the boy Tadzio.

Mann himself often remarked how closely the novella shadowed life. “Nothing in Death in Venice is invented,” he wrote.

The traveller by the Northern Cemetery in Munich, the gloomy boat from Pola, the aged fop, the dubious gondolier, Tadzio and his family, the departure prevented by a mix-up over luggage, the cholera, the honest clerk in the travel agency, the malevolent street singer, or whatever else you might care to mention—everything was given, and really only needed to be fitted in, proving in the most astonishing manner how it could be interpreted within my composition.

Mann, always fascinated by the interplay of life and art, contrived to create yet more parallels: descriptions of the works on which Aschenbach’s fame rests, such as a novel about Frederick the Great, are based on projects that Mann had abandoned, during ten difficult years when nothing had equaled the success of his first novel, Buddenbrooks. When Aschenbach sits on the beach writing an essay inspired by Tadzio’s beauty, the narrator coyly comments, “It is as well that the world knows only a fine piece of work and not also its origins.” But Death in Venice is one of those works, like À la recherche du temps perdu, where the genesis—the process by which life became literature—is almost as fruitful a topic as the finished work itself.

In Deaths in Venice, the philosopher Philip Kitcher reads Mann’s novella as a work of philosophy, and amplifies this reading with reference to the film version by Luchino Visconti and the opera by Benjamin Britten. Kitcher is best known as a philosopher of science and he acknowledges that the Anglo-American analytic tradition within which he works rarely has much to say about literature. Yet he has published a guide to Finnegans Wake and coauthored a study of Wagner’s Ring cycle—and he goes deeply into Mann’s writings, life, and influences. He has evidently read the works in German; he has consulted the books and manuscripts in the Mann archive in Zurich, and draws revealing inferences from them.

Kitcher’s style of argument is breezily discursive rather than closely analytic, a feature that probably reflects the book’s origins as a series of lectures given at Columbia. He often works by suggestion, and states that he is more interested in sketching out new ways of thinking about the novella than in presenting a single interpretation: “The aim is not to convince readers of particular theses but to provide materials through which they can transcend what I have written.” All the same, the book contains new interpretations, and some of them are surprising. Kitcher thinks that Aschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio does not bring about his degradation, that he has had a long string of similar homoerotic crushes, and that his death may have nothing to do with the cholera epidemic that Mann describes so painstakingly.

Kitcher begins by justifying the view that certain works of imaginative literature merit consideration as philosophy in their own right. He identifies three possible “grades of philosophical involvement.” The first is superficial reference, for instance Dickens’s satire of utilitarians in the character of Gradgrind in Hard Times. In the second grade, “substantive ideas from philosophy” are “taken over and applied to the literary account”; Dante’s Hell is an example, because Virgil points out that it is organized along Aristotelian lines. Finally, in the third grade, “philosophical explorations are organically integrated” and the author “develops answers of his or her own instead of accepting the proposals of others.” In Kitcher’s view:

The deepest grade of philosophical involvement is found in many of the most celebrated literary (and musical) works: in the dramas of Sophocles and Shakespeare, in the song cycles of Schubert and the songs and symphonies of Mahler, in Wagner’s Ring, in Joyce’s fiction (particularly in the two great final novels Ulysses and Finnegans Wake), and in the novels and novellas of Thomas Mann.

The list raises obvious questions about what makes the cut. In a footnote, Kitcher says that it “reflects my own idiosyncratic tastes,” but this seems disingenuous. His personal canon is really the standard European high-culture canon; not for nothing does he call these the “most celebrated” works. As the book progresses, a rather dignified view of the artistic calling emerges.

Kitcher preempts objections that art, because of its appeal to feeling, can’t be considered philosophy. He does this by undercutting philosophy’s claims to objectivity, showing the extent to which concepts and terminology are subjective and historically contingent rather than instruments of pure reason. And he sees no reason to discount “a real advance in ethical judgment” just because it arises from fiction. Dickens, though not on Kitcher’s list of literary philosophers,

sometimes engages the imagination in powerful ways, moving his readers to change their minds about the justice of social institutions they have taken for granted.

With a figure like Jo the crossing sweeper, Dickens uses sentiment to bring about a “shift in ethical perspective.”

Kitcher does less to address complaints from the opposite direction—from readers who question whether literature is necessarily in the business of persuasion at all. Few people today need to be persuaded of the ills of Victorian society, so why are we still reading Bleak House? In a philosophical reading, the side of literature that has nothing to do with a “shift in ethical perspective” is in danger of dropping out of the picture.

Even a casual reader of Death in Venice quickly senses a wealth of philosophical allusion. References to Apollo and Dionysus encourage us to see its events in the light of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy—with Aschenbach, an entirely Apollonian artist, getting his Dionysian comeuppance. Aschenbach recalls the dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus, and his love of Tadzio often appears in Platonic terms: the boy’s beauty stimulates contemplation of the ideal of beauty itself. Critics have been divided about what to make of this. For some, Mann’s classicizing treatment is little more than a fig leaf concealing baser lusts; Aschenbach’s violent, orgiastic dream toward the end of the novella might seem to bear out this supposition. On the other hand, much of the power of Death in Venice comes from the way it sweeps the reader up into Aschenbach’s fevered, associative, cultured mind. The tone of the book is too close to his Platonic effusions for us simply to sneer at them. So an ambiguity prevails: the book adopts poses of classical idealism while allowing us to view them ironically.

T.J. Reed, one of the work’s most penetrating readers, has found textual evidence for a change of heart halfway through the story’s composition. Mann seems to have started off writing something “hymnic”—as he later described it to a young gay writer—in which Aschenbach, like his creator, was revitalized by his encounter with beauty. But the project ran into difficulties, and he returned to two older ideas: one about the aged Goethe’s love for the teenaged Ulrike von Levetzow; the other, as described in a 1905 notebook, about an artist “brought low by the ambitious claims which success leads him to make for himself.” Thus Aschenbach’s story came to embody two kinds of humiliation—that of age in love with youth, and that of an artist whose reputation outweighs his achievement.

Kitcher, much of whose recent work has treated ethical questions, thinks that Death in Venice is concerned with the “oldest and deepest question of philosophy…: How to live?” He tends to discuss Aschenbach’s choices in moral terms and much of his book occupies an interesting middle ground between philosophy and literary criticism. He believes that people overestimate Nietzsche’s influence on the text—Mann’s copy of The Birth of Tragedy is scantily annotated—and that they fail to appreciate the more important influence of Arthur Schopenhauer. Mann, like so many of his generation, read Schopenhauer intently, though he acknowledged being influenced “by its passion more than by its wisdom.” Kitcher, looking at the annotations in Mann’s copy of The World as Will and Representation, verifies that Mann largely ignored Schopenhauer’s complicated reworking of Kant and read him as a “psychologist of the will” rather than as a metaphysician.

Kitcher’s actual readings of Death in Venice don’t always directly relate to this point, or to his assertion that the novella represents literary philosophy of the highest order. Instead, a sense of Mann’s philosophical originality is meant to become apparent as we go along. For much of the book, Kitcher is content to throw out interesting possibilities, leaving the reader to assemble them into a thesis. He writes, “If it is not always evident in the following pages just where the interpretive work is pointing, that is not necessarily a bad thing.” It’s not necessarily a good thing either, and one can regret that he is not a more assiduous guide, given the novelty of the terrain. We follow him through the twists and turns of his thought rather as Aschenbach pursues Tadzio through the alleyways of Venice, and occasional lose sight of the quarry entirely.

On the face of it, Aschenbach might seem to offer only a negative template to the question of how to live. Death in Venice charts his progress from being an imperious and unreachable man—an acquaintance likens him to a closed fist—to being a ridiculous one, whose desires have almost completely eroded his self-control. However, the most striking feature of Kitcher’s reading is that he sees Aschenbach’s downfall in a forgiving light. The humiliating, fatal pursuit of Tadzio is “a regrettable period,” he writes, but there is no reason to suppose that it retroactively obliterates the moral value of Aschenbach’s previous life. Indeed we should be grateful “that these closing disfigurements occurred in a confined, even a quarantined, space,” and that his reputation will remain intact. Similarly, events should not make us suppose that Aschenbach’s work “is somehow worthless—or even less than great. Those writings have been canonized, included in books for schoolchildren.”

There is something almost touching about the conviction that, if Aschenbach’s work appears on school curricula, it cannot be valueless. But it flies in the face of Mann’s evident intentions. Aschenbach, collapsing in pursuit of Tadzio, raves that “we writers can be neither wise nor dignified” and that the use of art in education “should be forbidden by law.” Mann’s notes for the story make matters even plainer:

The artist’s fame a farce, popular trust in him idiotic. Education through art a risky undertaking which should be prohibited. Ironic that boys read him.

Kitcher is certainly aware of Mann’s view here and it is strange that he goes to such lengths to defend an eminence about which Mann is consistently ironic.

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