The Role of the Artist
Many of Mann’s works examine the psychological makeup of the artist and how that makeup affects the artist’s ability to live in society. Death in Venice, in particular, examines two drastically different ways the artist may approach his art and his moral responsibilities to society.
At the beginning of the novella, Gustav Aschenbach is an artist who has chosen the Apollonian way of living and producing art. Apollo was the Greek god associated with light, truth, morals, and perfection. His oracle at Delphi was considered a shrine for purification. From a young age, Aschenbach took an Apollonian approach to his life; he devoted himself to perfecting his writing, often sacrificing youth and pleasure and travel. He became famous for his “oracular emphasis,” and his style of “an almost exaggerated sense of beauty, a lofty purity, symmetry, and simplicity, which gave his productions a stamp of the classic, of conscious and deliberate mastery.” The heroes he depicted in his novels triumphed over hardships and achieved self-command—and in doing so they achieved perfect “beauty,” a beauty that comes from the soul. As an artist, Aschenbach saw himself as an arbiter of morality.
From the moment Aschenbach sees the stranger in the stone mason’s yard, however, he begins to question how he has lived his life. Something about the strange man suggests a bohemian freedom that strongly contrast with the lofty, structured stone monuments that proclaim virtuous lives lived by the now dead. The man’s presence in such a place stirs in Aschenbach a desire to travel, to affect some sort of change in his life. What sort of change, he is not sure.
When Aschenbach arrives in Venice, however, he leaves behind his structured life and plunges into a world famous for beauty and pleasure. The young boy, Tadzio, strikes Aschenbach as the embodiment of classical beauty, of Apollonian beauty: “His face recalled the noblest moment of Greek sculpture—pale, with a sweet reserve, with clustering honey-coloured ringlets, the brow and nose descending in one line, the winning mouth, the expression of pure and godlike serenity.” Aschenbach soon discovers, however, that the boy is not perfect. He is, in fact, sickly and delicate, with a hint of early death about him. Yet he is still unbelievably beautiful.
Such beauty in the face of decay makes Aschenbach question both his life and his art. He longs to regain his own youth in the face of his own decay. He throws caution and structure to the wind and begins to live dictated by passion rather than moral responsibility. He plunges into a more Dionysian view of life and art, a view that holds passion—not denial—is the way to truth. Dionysius, the Greek god associated with fertility, the arts, and wine, was worshipped not through chaste sacrifice but through orgiastic, frenzied rites. Aschenbach succumbs to the Dionysian pull of Venice, lulled by its beautiful shores, secretly thrilled by its decay—and the unannounced cholera that preys on Venice. He completely falls in love with Tadzio, because to do so is to fall in love with death, to see death as beautiful.
By the time of his death, Aschenbach has abandoned his Apollonian view of art and become completely Dionysian. In his delusions, he fancies himself as Socrates pronouncing truths to the young man Phædrus, proclaiming that “beauty alone is both divine and visible; and so it is the sense way, the artist’s way . . . to the spirit.” He further tells Phædrus that “we poets can be neither wise nor worthy citizens” because to live with the senses means living for one’s self only.
The irony of Death in Venice is, however, that Aschenbach, as a human, will die no matter what view of art or life he takes.
The Struggle Against Death
Intertwined with Aschenbach’s artistic struggle to find a way to Truth is his struggle to find a way to accept death. On one level, Death in Venice is the age-old story of a man acknowledging that he is no longer young. And like so many men, Aschenbach fights against that knowledge.
Because of his devotion to his art, Aschenbach had let his youth pass uneventfully; as an adult, he had no time to worry over wrinkles or a weakening body. On his trip to Venice, he scoffs at the hideous display of the old man trying to appear and act young; Aschenbach feels he is too sensible to ever stoop to such a display. He would never act so irrationally.
Once he sees Tadzio, however, he regrets letting his youth slip away. In comparison to Tadzio’s fresh, unblemished beauty, Aschenbach finds himself withered and old—he had not realized just how old he had grown until he saw Tadzio. Suddenly it seems too late to recapture youthful looks and feelings, yet on the surface, Aschenbach does struggle. He does nothing but seek pleasure. He goes to a barber and has his hair dyed and makeup applied to make him look younger. He trades his sensible clothing for clothes that resemble Tadzio’s, and in doing so he becomes just like the young-old man he once criticized. He follows Tadzio, just like the young-old man clung to his youthful companions. He becomes ridiculous:
There he sat, the master. . . . This was he who had put knowledge underfoot to climb so high; who had outgrown the ironic pose and adjusted himself to the burdens and obligations of fame; whose renown had been officially recognized and his name ennobled, whose style was set for a model in the schools. There he sat. His eyelids were closed, there was only a swift, sidelong glint of the eyeballs now and again, something between a question and a leer; while the rouged and flabby mouth uttered single words of sentences shaped in his disordered brain by the fantastic logic that governs our dreams.
As ridiculous as Aschenbach has become, however, he still understands that death, in the end, is inevitable. He feels in league with the Venetians who are denying death and cholera in their city, so they can keep tourists. He delights in the fact that Tadzio is a delicate boy who may, in fact, not live into adulthood. Both Venice and Tadzio embody the idea that death touches everything, no matter how beautiful. Their beauty, in essence, makes death more acceptable. In the end, Aschenbach stops struggling and lets the “lovely Summoner,” in Tadzio’s form, beckon him into nothingness.