Death in Venice--Thomas Mann

I remember liking this very much in college and my recollection of the line of the story was quite vague, so I wanted to reacquaint myself with it.  And what I can say of it is the Death in Venice is a book by a young man that is best appreciated by young men.  The concerns and themes of the novel are such that I left off reading with a sense of, "Well isn't that quaint."  All of the angst and the sturm und drang about art and the purpose of art and the artist as person and the artist as artist--in the light of the remainder of the 20th Century (this was published in 1911) is simply irrelevant.  That said of the book presents us with a quaint artifact of the passions of the early 20th century.

On the other hand--the read them--the prescient and exceedingly creepy theme of leibestod--often identified with the "homoerotic" element of the story remains powerful and awful--particularly in light of where this particular Germanic obsession wound up in history.  While the homoerotic element is there, thematically, I can't imagine anyone in the gay world wanting to embrace this linkage of same-sex interest/attraction and death.

The story seems to be more a fable or allegory representing the Freudian "death wish"  or the Wagnerian "Leibestod" than it is about an older man attracted to a boy.  While the boy is clearly the center of interest, Mann makes very clear what that boy represents and what it is all about.  There are sharp increases in attraction, almost an intake of breath, that occur when Gustav von Aschenbach thinks about how the boy is frail, and pallid, and not likely to live until adulthood.  There is something of the aesthete about this and something about the whole mal de siecle that permeated the aesthetic circles at the turn of the century.  It is deeply sick--so much so that I'm reminded of a scene in The Addams Family when the family asks, "Is it disturbing,"  and the psychiatrist responds, "Deeply."  That is my sense of Death in Venice--deeply and deliberately disturbing--playing with this theme of being "half in love with easeful death."  More than half in love as the title conveys.

So while the art concerns strike me as dated and of their time--this particular theme--Germanic as it tends to be--rooted in the very center of the adopted mythos of the early Germanic peoples with their Götterdammerung remain relevant and even horribly applicable today.

On another note--one introduction I read to the book suggested that Thomas Mann himself was homosexually attracted but never acted on the impulses.  I was disturbed by this, not so much for the implications of homosexuality, but by the question of relevance and proof.  Is the text itself to stand as proof--the writer of the introduction simply dropped his little bomb and moved on.  So are we to infer that anyone who writes of homosexuality is necessarily homosexual?  Is it not possible to write on the subject using the faculties of the imagination?  And is it a relevant datum in understanding the story?  Perhaps it is important in understanding Mann's life--I wouldn't know, because I don't know it is is true and I don't know anything about Mann himself.  But I do find that such things tend to detract from the more interesting statements one might make about a book.

A brilliant and stunning exposition of a deeply disturbing theme in both literature and life of the 10th and 21st centuries.  Recommended



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