B-day Presents for Past Artists: Thomas Mann
2Mag celebrates Thomas Mann’s birthday by looking back at one of his finest works, Death in Venice, and considering what it says about his struggle for artistic creation.
June 06, 2017
I first read Death in Venice during my freshman year of college after watching the Visconti film that was based on Mann’s tale. While the movie from the maestro was brilliant and meticulously crafted, the novella was something different. As an 18-year-old Pooterish student and wannabe connoisseur who enjoyed excessive pretentiousness and sophistication in the arts, the unbearable heaviness of symbolism in the novella left me intellectually fulfilled. Today, on June 6, in celebration Thomas Mann's 142nd birthday, I reflect on the book I was obsessed with during my misspent youth after having recently reread it. This is what I have found.
Death in Venice is not so much about love and obsession as it is about the struggle of artistic creation as experienced by Mann.
The first time I read the novella it seemed to be a story of unrequited love about a middle-aged successful author, Gustave von Aschenbach, who encounters beauty incarnate in the form of a young man named Tadzio; indeed, there are a number of references specifically to platonic love. As the story goes on, Aschenbach’s passion for the adolescent boy grows, culminating in lust and obsession. In my own earlier adolescence, I focused solely on the outburst of passion and loved how Mann romanticizes the obsession by presenting it as a sophisticated prose decorated with classical allusions. Nabokov would be furious, but back then I even found some resemblance of the obsession in his work, Lolita. But apart from Freudian influence, homoeroticism, and heavy classical allusions, the main concern of Death in Venice is the Nietzschean struggle with art and life for an artist.
For Thomas Mann, being an artist was not easy: it was a noble calling, a moral obligation, and a will to art that required an artist to sacrifice himself physically and emotionally for the sake of perfectionism. But passion can lead to confusion and the temptation of beauty can turn to obsession. His artistic struggle is laid bare in Death in Venice, as Aschenbach’s passion for Tadzio is a metaphor for an artist’s tragic pursuit of perfection and the opposing forces of Apollonian and Dionysian artistic creation. At the beginning of the novella, Aschenbach is portrayed as having an Apollonian psyche when it comes to artistic creation. He is highly systematic and disciplined with his work. After he becomes obsessed with the ideal beauty of Tadzio, his approach to artistic creation transforms into a chaotic, irrational, and Dionysian pursuit of an ideal beauty that eventually leads to his decadent downfall.
“Nothing in Death in Venice is invented,” wrote Thomas Mann in his memoir. Looking at the context of the novella, from the death of Gustav Mahler to the outbreak of cholera, Death in Venice is a personal history, an autobiographical narration. Mann experienced similar problems Aschenbach did; writer’s block, homosexual repression, a secret passion for Wladyslaw Moes (the likely inspiration for Tadzio), and the opposing Apollonian and Dionysian psyches that influenced his writing process.
Exploring these profound and realistic artistic struggles, Death in Venice reflects Thomas Mann’s personal problems and provides readers a glimpse of an artistic endeavor in the pursuit of perfection. In celebration of Mann’s 142nd birthday, perhaps you should pick up the book in search of insight on a work of literary art, a profoundly philosophical author, and the struggle of the creative process, as I have on this day.