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André Cadieux THE JUNGLE OF DIONYSUS: THE SELF IN MANN AND NIETZSCHE "nphe self," wrote Kierkegaard, "is a relation which relates itself to A its own self." From this cryptic saying we may at least infer that to be a self is to be self-conscious. But the human self has always resisted its reflexive scrutiny, and thus remains mysterious to itself. "What—on the assumption that it has one—is its essence?" "Of what moral nature is that essence?" "What possibilities of self-transcendence does the self contain?" These questions are, or ought to be insofar as we pride ourselves on being reflective, central questions for us all. They were surely central to Friedrich Nietzsche and Thomas Mann, but it is the burden of this article to argue that these men were united, at least at a certain point in the career of each, in their answers as well as in their questions. If we accept this claim, then we must either find dubious Mann's assertion about Nietzsche, "I took nothing literally, I believed him hardly at all,"1 or accept it on pain of believing in the occurrence of an extraordinary coincidence. For (I submit) a full understanding of Aschenbach's fate in Death in Venice yields a vision of human life and the self that is identical to that of Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy. Mann's central symbol is thejungle; it is, in fact, thejungle of Nietzsche's Dionysus. I When death, in the person of the gaunt stranger with the vertical furrows in his brow (pp. 4-5),3 comes to lead Aschenbach on his last journey, our sense of symmetry disposes us to find in the story some symbol of life as well. And initially it looks as if, in Aschenbach's vision of the jungle "thick with incredible bloom" (pp. 5-6), we have it. But if we follow Mann into the psyche of Gustave Aschenbach, we shall see that the matter is not so simple. Aschenbach, at the height of 53 54Philosophy and Literature his powers—a nobleman at fifty, whose prose is by now a textbook paradigm (p. 14)—is declining, suffering from a "growing fatigue, which no one must suspect," and longs to travel because travel will remove him from "the spot which was the daily theatre of a rigid, cold, and passionate service" (p. 7), a service which he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain. But why the difficulty? He was not naturally robust—which made his efforts of will "the more morally valiant" (p. 9); but what is there in the writer's art that should demand such stamina? Aschenbach had himself said "that almost everything conspicuously great is great in despite," and of the truth of that saying his own life was an exemplar (p. 1 1). But in despite of what? The text mentions mundane obstructions and afflictions, but these are superficial. We must look for our answer in that force against which Aschenbach has most strenuously set himself. That force, it emerges, is knowledge. The conspicuously great is great in despite of its temptation by knowledge. Knowledge is for Aschenbach, strangely, a "sharp and bitter irritant" which blunts the mind, and because it had for him this property he "turned his back on the realm of knowledge, and passed it by with averted face" (pp. 12-13). He renounces sympathy with this "abyss," and in its place achieves "the miracle of regained detachment," which issues in a style of "lofty purity, symmetry, and simplicity, which gave his productions a stamp of the classic" (p. 13). But what is this dread knowledge, why is it dreaded, and what is the detachment sought in its stead? It is knowledge, we must conclude, of the human soul. Aschenbach's great novel, The Abject, is to be interpreted as "a rebuke to the excesses of a psychology-ridden age," excesses which stand condemned because they issue in "the flabby humanitarianism" expressed in Madame de StaëPs maxim that to understand all is to forgive all (p. 13). Aschenbach, in short, rejects knowledge of the true self because it leads to the self's acceptance of the self...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 53-63
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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