Death in Venice is one complex piece of writing. Besides dealing with homoeroticism (in 1911) and approaching complex questions of ethics, psychology, and aesthetics, the novella also manages to reference Nietzsche and Plato while making us empathize with someone who some might (crudely) just call a pedophile.
Gustave Von Aschenbach, the protagonist, is an aging, famous writer who slowly becomes infatuated with a 14-year-old boy named Tadzio. His passion unfolds against the background of a cholera outbreak in Venice, and although Aschenbach is aware of the danger, he cannot leave Tadzio; this decision eventually leads to his death. Thomas Mann explores Aschenbach’s obsession and demise in a way that is nuanced, compassionate, and highly intertextual—one of the main texts he relies on being Plato’s Phaedrus.
We have started exploring Phaedrus here on PEL this week. Mann draws heavily from Plato’s conception of love, but to what extent? Aschenbach presumably quotes from the dialogue, but parts of the Platonic view get entangled with the protagonist’s imagination, as his musings on love and beauty often take place in moments of feverish delirium. What are some similarities between the couples Socrates-Phaedrus and Aschenbach-Tadzio, and what aspects of Mann’s work does the Phaedrus serve to illuminate?
Aschenbach is a reputable writer, but his art is more mechanical than creative, more meticulous than spontaneous. A man who is not “pleasure-loving” and somewhat unable to relax, Aschenbach has sacrificed his entire life on the altar of his career. Although this has brought him widespread recognition, he now feels that his work is a burden and the result is dull, lacking in spark and enthusiasm, so he decides to go on a trip in an attempt to refresh his creativity.
In his travels he meets Tadzio, a 14-year-old Polish boy of exceptional beauty. The first time he sees him, as well as later on when his feelings become stronger, Aschenbach uses Greek mythology and ancient Greek standards of beauty to describe Tadzio’s beauty. He refers to him as godlike and compares him to a Greek statue, while conflating these descriptions with his own ideas about art and beauty:
In almost every artist nature is inborn a wanton and treacherous proneness to side with the beauty that breaks hearts, to single out aristocratic pretensions and pay them homage.
The first time our protagonist quotes from Phaedrus is quite late in the book, in a moment of euphoric “drunk-in-loveness.” He imagines Plato’s Socrates teaching Phaedrus about desire and virtue. In Aschenbach’s interpretation, Socrates distinguishes base men, who cannot conceive eternal beauty when they see its human image, from noble ones, who are reverent and ecstatic when they see a godlike face or a perfect body. Socrates adds—and stresses—how important it is to understand that beauty is noble only as a means toward the intellect. As Ellis Shookman puts it (in a book I found exceptionally useful and enlightening) “Aschenbach has a pulsating thought and an exact feeling: that nature shudders with bliss when intellect pays homage to beauty.” (p. 31) He soon becomes infused with enthusiasm and a sudden urge to create, inspired by Tadzio. After this brief but powerful moment of erotic infatuation, Aschenbach feels shattered and exhausted as if hungover or otherwise suffering the consequences of a kind of excess.
The theory of love exposed in Phaedrus is quite a lofty one, and it seems that Aschenbach’s embracing it (and misidentifying himself with Socrates) is crucial to his demise. The divine madness of love can be good for us if it helps us recognize the eternal forms of beauty, the forms we have once seen in heaven before inhabiting our bodies here on earth. A beautiful boy (such as Tadzio, Aschenbach thinks) serves to remind his lover of Beauty as Form, and the lover’s duty is to abstain from sexual consummation thus channeling his feelings into Platonic Love. Purely physical beauty plays a key role in this, as without it it might be impossible for the philosopher to recollect eternal forms. But sexual abstinence is crucial. Not many manage to show such erotic restraint, but those who can truly lead a philosophical life. Combining the dialogue Phaedrus with Phaedrus’ speech from the Symposium, Aschenbach embraces the idea that the lover is superior to his beloved, more divine, more godlike. When he first mentions Phaedrus in chapter 4, Aschenbach thinks he is that superior lover, the old, wise artist, accomplished and revered, who will manage to use, ‘to sublimate’ his erotic feelings for the 14-year old into the highest form of art. He still thinks that he can resist and transcend the physical for the sake of the ennobling abstract. This is all aligned with his self-perception – after all, he has been a man of restraint his whole life (someone had even said that he lived like a tight fist) but, as some critics have pointed out, Aschenbach is lying to himself here, and had probably done so his entire life.
The next time Phaedrus is mentioned is toward the very end (chapter 5), after Aschenbach eats the poisonous strawberries. Giving in to the heat, in a state of feverish half-slumber, Aschenbach continues to quote Phaedrus, this time in a mixture of harsh self-criticism, a lot of it imagined to come directly from Plato, through the voice of Socrates. Poets, Socrates whispers to Aschenbach, cannot reach knowledge without taking a sensual path, where they get fatally distracted by Eros. Attaining knowledge does not bring with it dignity, for knowledge not only “has compassion for the abyss—it is the abyss.” So when confronted with knowledge, poets reject it and return to beauty, which is large but simple, hiding the artist’s base yearning for passion and love. Aschenbach, the poet, might have tried to disguise his yearning under an austere style, but that was just deceitful illusion, and the recognition he received is in turn illusory and ridiculous. Beauty is also a pit of decay where the poet is bound to fall because he has no other choice. The destiny of the artist seems to be doomed, and so the reverence we give him is absurd, and entrusting artists with educating the young is also pure madness. As Shookman puts it, the rejection of knowledge pushes artists into a kind of “reborn naiveté” but this leads to intoxication and desire, and ultimately to a different kind of abyss. Artists do not seem able to pull themselves together, they can only fall apart.
Aschenbach dies only a few days later.
Plato’s argument in Phaedrus is quite complex, and it’s important to distinguish between the real dialogue and Aschenbach’s imagination of it. You can listen to the guys disentangle it in our latest podcast here (or become a PEL citizen to listen to the entire thing at once). There are many other facets to Aschenbach’s demise, a lot to do with the Apollinian/Dionysian dichotomy, but also with Aschenbach’s self-repression and his pure lack of truthfulness to himself. The layers of this text are countless, and makes the novella a wonderful read, as Mann’s writing is sensitive and abounds with philosophical and psychological insight.
Ana Sandoiu is a writer, researcher & philosophy lover living in Brighton, UK. She also writes on her personal blog, On a Saturday Morning.