Thomas Mann. Death in Venice
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Time as Theme in Death in Venice
The aspects of time which permeate Thomas Mann’s celebrated novella “Death in Venice” (1912) are as necessary and as aesthetically expressive in the context of the novella as the more obvious, perhaps more forthright, thematic ideas which concern creativity, sexuality, and mortality. In fact, consideration of time — as both a linear and non-linear phenomenon — are so closely aligned with the various thematic textures of the novella that it wold not be unreasonable to designate time, itself, as the theme of “Death in Venice,” with aspects of individual “midlife crisis,” sexual desire, and professional vanity growing out of the the root-themes of time and mortality. The attentive reader notices, from the very opening of the novella, that ideas about time, rather than ideas about specific events which take place in time, forms the central point of tension in the developing narrative. For example, the opening line of the novella: It was a spring afternoon in that year of grace 19–, when Europe sat upon the anxious seat beneath a menace that hung over its head for months” (Mann 3) places the issue of time right up front so that the reader’s original orientation to the events which will take place during the story is set firmly within the historical context of the story.
This is important because Mann’s intention to create an ultimately ironic character through the figure of Aschenbach is deeply dependent on his ability to demonstrate that Aschenbach is a figure who stands both trapped by and woefully out of step with his own contemporary time. Emotionally, Aschenbach is described as being “overwrought by a morning of hard, nerve-taxing work, work which had not ceased to exact his uttermost in the way of sustained concentration, conscientiousness” (Mann 3), which the reader only gradually realizes to be an ironic form of self-reflection and self-aggrandizement on behalf of Aschenbach, which ultimately results in his “tragic” downfall and death while vacationing at a resort in Venice.
The connection between the opening passage of the novel and considerations of time is precisely that which reveals Aschenbach to be a man “out of time” both literally and figuratively — as relates to his anachronistic vision of art, aesthetics, and personal morality. The latter considerations are explicated somewhat as Aschenbach is seen to compare himself, inwardly, with Cicero, the great Roman orator of antiquity, when Aschenbach discovers he is “powerless to check the onward sweep of the productive mechanism within him, that motus animi continuus in which, according to Cicero, eloquence resides” (Mann 3). It is the comparison with Cicero, and only this, which marks the above-cited passage as ironic. Even so, th perception of the comparison as ironic is elusive and becomes clear to the alert reader, only as the events of the story unfold.
Aschenbach’s inner-reverence for the past, for classical antiquity, actually serves as a form of self-empowerment, and also of self-delusion. The idea that the past was a glorious time, rife with intellectual advancement, artistic brilliance, moral uprightness, and philosophical relevancy are the cornerstones of Aschenbach’s world-view and he is centered in this vision as a man who can appreciate and also articulate and embody the bygone glories of a far better, now past, age. because Aschenbach is a successful writer, an artist who earns good money and has social respect and social power, the reader is apt, at least during the beginning of the story, to view Aschenbach very much like he views himself: as a brilliant artist who exerts self-discipline, studies history and literature, and conducts himself with moral restraint all for the purpose of making his ability as a creative artist more potent — not for fame or glory or money but for art and art only. By viewing Aschenbach this way, it is very easy for the reader to share Aschenbach’s convictions about the past as a better age and about himself as a faithful keeper of past tradition which is a crucial part of humanity’s heritage, but which may be in danger of being lost to contemporary minds and eyes.
The first overt sign in the story that Aschenbach’s vision of the past is skewed and therefore, also, his vision of himself is skewed, is when he boards the vessel which is to take him to Venice. The vessel, itself, reeks of the past but of a dark, brooding, and dangerous past — not a glorious Roman past of eloquent oratory and mythic resonance: ” It was an ancient hulk belonging to an Italian line, obsolete, dingy, grimed with soot” (Mann 16). The fact of the “ancient hulk” (Mann 16) stands as a concrete contradiction to Aschenbach’s internal and illogical reverence for the past, but Aschenbach’s narcissistic involvement with his own inner-world of imagination acts as a disguise through which the very obvious and literal real-world emblems of the past are obscured beneath his own unending romantic dreams and fantasies. Although the ship is piloted by “A dirty hunchbacked sailor” (Mann 16) and the ticket-seller reminds Aschenbach of “an old-fashioned circus-director” (Mann 16), Aschenbach’s penetrating intellect and his poetic vision fail to recognize the emblematic significance of the vessel and its crew, and, instead, he yields to the contemporary “fever” of leisure travel “This person put the usual questions and wrote out a ticket to Venice, which he issued to the traveler with many commercial flourishes” (Mann 16).
Although it is tricky to fully comprehend the weight of the above-quoted scene, one thing which is very clear is that Aschenbach has forfeited his inner-belief and faith in antiquity and the morals and sensitivities of the past to speed headlong into “commercial flourishes” (Mann 16). This is an act which should provoke a sense of doom or at least dissonance in the attentive reader because it demonstrates that Aschenbach is, indeed, an ironic character, whose previously described reverence for and infatuation with the “superior” past is now exposed to be an affectation on his behalf, one which serves to place him in an obviously ironic condition, boarding a decrepit old boat to Venice whilst still carrying on within his own mind the lofty ideals of antiquity.
Time plays the central role in the ironic reversal describes above and it is this same dynamic which also brings about the final “tragedy” of “Death in Venice.” The same dichotomy between Aschenbach’s self-delusionary inner-vision of the past and the reality of the past is the driving mechanism for the tension and suspense that surrounds Aschenbach’s quest and eventual death. To contrast his delusionary vision of the past and romanticism with reality is all that is necessary for Mann to reveal Aschenbach, finally, even to the most insensitive reader, as a farce and ironic character. When Aschenbach dreams of his boy-love, he feels the great poetic reverberation of antiquity swell over Venice “Now daily the naked god with cheeks aflame drove his four fire-breathing steeds through heaven’s spaces; and with him streamed the strong east wind that fluttered his yellow locks” (Mann 40).
However, seen in naked reality without the poetic posturing which comprises Aschenbach’s persona, the wave of beauty, lust, and nostalgia is actually something much less poetic, though no less ancient: “For the past several years Asiatic cholera had shown a strong tendency to spread. Its source was the hot, moist swamps of the delta of the Ganges, where it bred in the mephitic air of that primeval island-jungle, among whose bamboo thickets the tiger crouches, where life of every sort flourishes in rankest abundance, and only man avoids the spot” (Mann 63). In this way, th final irony, that Aschenbach’s vision of poetry, lust, self-glory, and spiritual exaltations — all seemingly soured from antiquity — may be more properly regarded as a primeval jungle, a source of pestilence, and as harbingers not of sex, beauty and life but of stagnation, primeval disease, and death.
Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice, and Seven Other Stories. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. New York:
Vintage Books, 1936.