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What Killed Aschenbach?

In response to:

Love in Venice from the January 9, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

Leo Carey concludes his thoughtful review of my Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach [NYR, January 9] by voicing the reasonable concern that, in giving prominence to Mann the serious thinker, I force Mann the artist to recede into the background. But I think my book captures important aspects of Mann’s artistry.

One point of my title was to signal the many ambiguities of Death in Venice: “Deaths” not “Death,” “Cases” not “Case.” Traditionally, certain claims are taken for granted—Aschenbach is an artistic failure, he dies of cholera—and since these claims tend to limit the philosophical exploration of the novella, I hoped to show that they are not required. Carey reads me as aiming to replace one set of interpretive assumptions with another, and criticizes some of my readings by summarizing the traditional grounds for the standard presuppositions; that style of argument assumes that we have to make a choice—and we do not. To foreclose possibilities is to overlook some of Mann’s artistic achievements.

What causes Aschenbach’s death? Mann allows for the transmission of cholera and death from cholera is “symbolically apt.” Yet Mann was punctilious about medical details, and his working notes contain a detailed description of the transmission and symptoms of cholera. In the hours before his death, Aschenbach is evidently not showing the usual symptoms. Carey treats this as a matter of “poetic license,” and thus ignores the craft with which Mann leaves options open. Mann tells us that Aschenbach was a delicate child; his abortive attempt to leave Venice was prompted by troubling symptoms—vision problems, congestion in the chest, pounding in the head; before he eats the suspect fruit, he is plagued with feverish sweating, neck tremors, and terrible thirst. Aschenbach might die from cholera—or as the result of a heart attack. Part of the literary brilliance lies in weaving the two possibilities into a single coherent narrative.

Why are critics so convinced that Aschenbach’s reputation inflates his achievement? One common ground lies in a crude reading of Nietzsche, and supposes that Aschenbach’s writing lacks “Dionysian passion.” Wisely, Carey does not propose this diagnosis. Instead he turns to the novella’s deflating characterizations of Aschenbach’s work, which occur in the second chapter and in the moralizing judgment after Aschenbach’s collapse. Following Dorrit Cohn, I recognize two narrative voices in the novella. One is a “moralizing narrator,” an unsympathetic, if not hostile, critic. The other, quieter and respectful, introduces Aschenbach to us, takes leave of him, and pervades many of the intervening pages. Mann’s skillful integration of these two voices is an advance in his literary development, pointing forward to the multi-vocality of his later fiction. But questions of narration leave interpreters with a choice. We can trust the critic—or suspect a deliberate intent to undermine. Aschenbach’s books might be as good as his international reputation suggests.

Perhaps my book should have been explicit: finding philosophical value in the novella is not claiming that all its value is philosophical.

Philip Kitcher
John Dewey Professor of Philosophy
Columbia University
New York City

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