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Death in Venice | Context

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Europe before World War I and Death in Venice

Many scholars believe Thomas Mann did not intend his novella to be a political statement but rather a spiritual and psychological exploration of the protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach. Venice is presented in the novel as a dreamlike, seductive place where liberation and decay coexist. Aschenbach has traveled from the cold north, where he is ruled by his self-discipline, to a warm southern region where his passions rise to the surface with tragic results.

Even so, political conditions seem to have influenced Mann's story. Death in Venice in many ways reflects the political situation in Europe before World War I. The hotel on the Lido (an island near Venice) represents a microcosm of Europe in the early 1900s. People of various nationalities, including German, Austrian, Polish, Russian, Italian, and English, are all together in one location. These national groups keep mostly to themselves, occasionally interacting with others. Most of these interactions appear to be cordial, but at times an underlying hostility emerges. For example, the Polish Tadzio appears to despise a Russian family, and Aschenbach's attitudes toward the other national groups at the hotel are influenced by stereotypes. He sees the Russian family as somewhat unruly, overly emotional, and crude; the Italians as exotic; and the Englishman at the travel agency as sedate and self-effacing. In a similar way, European nations were keeping up a surface cordiality with an underlying tension that would eventually erupt in war.

An ominous cloud hovers over the national groups at the hotel with the threat of an epidemic. Rumors circulate about the disease spreading, but they are difficult to verify or repudiate. Similarly, the threat of war was ever-present in Europe as rumors spread about possible conflicts between nations. In the novella the rumors prove to be true as an epidemic strikes Venice. Although Mann wrote Death in Venice before World War I, he was aware of the potential outbreak of conflicts with equally devastating results.

Classicism and Greek Mythology

In Death in Venice, Gustav von Aschenbach has become famous for writing texts that are strongly influenced by classicism. Classicism, a philosophy that comes from the ancient Greeks, emphasizes balance, order, harmony, and the use of reason, and it rejects emotionalism, sensuality, and exaggeration. Early in the novella Aschenbach strives to uphold classicism and thus rejects his own sensuality. He sees the world through the prism of classical thinkers. As a result he often compares Tadzio to a Greek god and thinks of philosophical issues posed by Greek philosophers. These references can be divided into two categories: Platonic philosophy and Greek mythology.

At times Aschenbach thinks about the Dialogues, a series of writings authored by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. According to Plato, things have the same name because they share common elements. For example, all tables share certain traits. These common factors make up the thing's form. All tables, therefore, are based in various ways on an ideal form. Things on Earth are an imperfect reflection of their perfect forms, which exist beyond space and time. The theory of forms also applies to intellectual concepts such as justice and truth. Justice exists on earth but it is never perfect. Perfect justice only exists in its ideal form, which is beyond the world.

Plato's dialogues present conversations between two or more people about philosophical issues, including the theory of forms. In the early dialogues, Plato has Socrates question people about what they think they understand. Through this process, Socrates shows that these people don't really understand what they think they know. Aschenbach especially focuses on the dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus. In this work, Socrates claims that beauty is the only intellectual form that can be perceived by using the senses. Other forms of intellectuality, such as justice and truth, cannot be felt, tasted, or heard. For Socrates the artist is vulnerable to excessive sensuality because of the physical aspect of beauty. In an attempt to achieve beauty, an artist can fall prey to terrible crimes of passion. Such a situation seems to happen to Aschenbach as he becomes obsessed with the beautiful Tadzio.

Throughout Death in Venice, Mann often refers to gods and other characters from Greek mythology, as in the following:

  • Aides: a form of Hades, god of the underworld
  • Apollo: god of the sun, music, poetry and more; representative of beauty and order
  • Cephalus: son of the god Hermes; abducted by Eos
  • Clitus: son of Mantius; abducted by Eos
  • Dionysus: god of winemaking, religious ecstasy, and ritual madness; representative of chaos and sensuality
  • Eos: goddess of the dawn
  • Eros: god of love
  • Hyacinth: a beautiful young man who was loved by Apollo (sun god); out of jealousy Zephyr killed him with a discus; the flower called hyacinth grew out of his blood
  • Narcissus: a handsome young man who fell in love with his own reflection in a pond; transfixed by his image, he wasted away and died
  • Orion: a handsome giant and hunter; after his death he was put among the stars
  • Poseidon: god of the sea
  • Zephyr: god of the west wind
  • Zeus: ruler of the gods; the god of the sky and weather

Contemporary Philosophy

Friedrich Nietzsche

The work of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) strongly influenced Thomas Mann, and this influence can be found throughout Death in Venice. Nietzsche's philosophy is based on classicism, which is discussed above. However, Nietzsche modified the beliefs of the classical philosophers, who thought humans should strive for reason, balance, and harmony in life. Nietzsche agrees with the ancient Greeks that human beings have two essentials drives, which he named for the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus. The Apollonian drive is the desire to use reason to create order, while the Dionysian is the urge to destroy the order that reason creates. The Dionysian drive uses unbridled emotionalism and sensuality to achieve its aim. Unlike the Greeks, Nietzsche asserts that the order created by the Apollonian drive is a sham because reality is basically chaotic. The Dionysian drive wants to dissolve this hypocritical order and return life and humankind to the basic state of chaos.

The division between the Apollonian and Dionysian drives can clearly be seen in Gustav von Aschenbach, the main character of Death in Venice. As a classicist he has striven throughout his career to write works that emphasize reason, balance, and order. By doing this he has suppressed his Dionysian drive. Therefore, his works can be seen as a sham because they do not reflect the disorder of life. Eventually, Aschenbach's sensuality emerges and overwhelms him, leading to the destruction of all of the classical ideals he has striven to uphold. In this way Aschenbach's development as a character supports Nietzsche's views.

Nietzsche also believed that people should use their willpower not to suppress their Dionysian drives, but rather to harness them in a creative way. By doing this a person could achieve higher or more noble goals. For example, artists might be willing to endure self-denial to create great art—they use their sensual, chaotic drives to endure suffering and create something worthwhile. At first Aschenbach uses his willpower to suppress his Dionysian side; later he lets go of this approach and embraces his sensuality. However, Aschenbach never harnesses this drive for a noble purpose, but instead he falls into obsession and despair and eventually dies. Mann seems to be saying that the fierce Dionysian drive can lead a person to destruction rather than creation.

In his writings Nietzsche refers to a person who tries to harness his Dionysian drive for a noble purpose as a superman. Nietzsche sees the superman as being above common morality and thus not accountable to traditional moral standards. This superman has some similarities to Aschenbach. As a famous author he has gained a superior position in society, one in which he sees himself as above normal knowledge and wisdom. He creates a simplified morality that needs no justification. However, when he feels drawn toward his Dionysian drive, he feels no need to question following his impulses. As a result he becomes a dissolute, misguided man. Through Aschenbach, Mann points out that instead of accomplishing noble achievements, a person who sees himself or herself as being above morality, knowledge, and wisdom may self-destruct and perhaps cause harm to others.

Sigmund Freud

The ideas of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the "father of psychoanalysis," were of great interest to Mann, and their influence can be seen in the novel. Freud, an Austrian neurologist, described his theories about the workings of the unconscious mind in his influential 1899 text The Interpretation of Dreams. To analyze the dreams of his patients, he proposed three forces that together made up the human psyche, or personality. They include the id, the primitive part of the mind that seeks pleasure; the ego, which acts as a check on the id and helps a person function in the real world; and the superego, which functions as a moral conscience.

Freud's theories included the concept of repression, which supposes the ego suppress feelings that make it uncomfortable. In some cases repression can be so severe that the patient does not realize he or she had a particular experience or emotion. Repression can also cause a person to behave in a dysfunctional way. This happens to Aschenbach, Mann's main character in Death in Venice. Initially rigid and self-disciplined, Aschenbach becomes obsessed with a young boy named Tadzio, setting up a conflict between his desires (the id) and his need to control them (the superego).
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