- Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach by Philip Kitcher
From philosophy of science, epistemology, and ethics to political philosophy and philosophy of mathematics, Philip Kitcher has made outstanding contributions to every philosophical discipline. With Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach, he continues his journey into philosophy of literature he undertook back in 2007 with his book Joyce’s Kaleidoscope. Written in his clear, precise, and occasionally almost poetic style, Deaths in Venice is not only an inspiring new interpretation of Thomas Mann’s famous novel Death in Venice but also a rich insight into the connection between philosophy and art, that is, literature and music. Original and thought provoking in his treatment of this much discussed topic, Kitcher’s analysis of the philosophical potentialities of literature and music, informed by his pragmatist background, offers a fresh perspective on how art influences the way people conceive of their experience and evinces a profound understanding of what philosophy is all about. The book is a delight to read, and Kitcher’s deep commitment to humanism and his passion for art radiate contagiously from every page.
Kitcher’s main claim about Death in Venice is that it is not only deeply influenced by philosophy but a work of philosophy in itself. Mann borrows from philosophers—Plato, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer are philosophical personae behind Death in Venice—only to transcend them with his own philosophical views, inviting readers to consider them as a promising alternative, a possible new “gestalt on life” (p. 184). Kitcher sets Death in Venice into a wider background consisting of the actual episodes from Mann’s life that inspired it, his philosophical and artistic influences, and the recurring motives that occupy him in all of his works—the relationship between artist and society, the plight of outsiders, and the question of how the values one aims to exemplify in one’s life might be countered by the circumstances in which one dies. He analyzes how Mann’s novella figures in Britten’s opera and Visconti’s film—with particular emphasis on the film’s use of music and the identification of Aschenbach with Mahler—treating them all as “philosophical explorations in their own right” (p. 10).
The crucial question for Mann (as for philosophy) is what makes life valuable. A lesson from Plato is the need to resolve the tension between self-control and the appreciation of beauty. Schopenhauer, immensely admired by Mann, believed that pessimism is the only appropriate attitude toward life’s unbearability. With Nietzsche, the question is answered via a series of penetrating analyses of different types of human lives, including the ascetic one that Aschenbach, and Mann, chose.
In Death in Venice, these ideas are united in the concept of ascetic discipline. Unable to resist Tadzio’s beauty, Aschenbach fails to meet Plato’s demand for self-control; his discipline breaks down, and he is possessed of an uncontrollable [End Page 320] passion that has at its core not only love but also (homo)sexual yearnings. Unlike most commentators who read this as an example of the Dionysian element overpowering the Apollonian, Kitcher argues that this aspect of Aschenbach’s conduct should be read against the background of Schopenhauer’s views on the captivating power of sexual desire. To support this interpretation, Kitcher analyzes the artistic choices employed by Mann, particularly the function of the novella’s coda. The significant though often neglected aspect of the way Aschenbach dies—at the lido, after regaining his composure—has a strong philosophical point, though it is hidden behind Mann’s irony and ambiguity, and often missed by those who see Aschenbach’s demise as having been brought about by passion. According to Kitcher, what Mann ultimately invites us to consider is that “the disciplined life, even the imperfectly disciplined life, may be worth living” (p. 60). Given the way that this insight is entwined with prose style and artistic choice, Mann’s work is an outstanding example of philosophy that shows rather than states. This Wittgensteinian distinction is...