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 at the core of Kitcher’s account of how literature and music provide their own philosophical insight by causing reflective psychological processes that bring about changes of belief in the audience. I’ll return to this below.
In the second chapter, which is particularly revealing of Mann’s lifelong psychological hardships marked by episodes of despondency and self-doubt, Kitcher elaborates on the philosophical questions that Mann tackles in Death in Venice, analyzing them against the background of Mann’s familial life. Not always in harmony with his children, and often tortured by his homosexual inclinations—which he managed to accept in great part because of the way his wife Katia coped with them and helped him come to terms with his heterosexual failures—Mann, sadly, did not find much joy in life, and he projected a lot of that anguish onto the character of Aschenbach. This raises the question of whether such a tormented life was too big a price to pay for his outstanding artistic accomplishments—a question suitably addressed to Aschenbach, given his moral failure.
The depth of Kitcher’s analysis is especially visible in the connections he draws between Death in Venice and other of Mann’s literary achievements that are similarly concerned with philosophical questions about the value of art, of discipline and the role of the artist-citizen. Of particular importance is the ideal of beauty and the question of whether it necessarily leads to moral degeneration. Relevant here are Plato’s and Plutarch’s views on the superiority of homosexual love, which must remain intellectual rather than physical. Aschenbach’s realization that he could never convey in words Tadzio’s beauty brings about his realization of his own shortcomings as an artist, and his failure to warn the boy and his family about the threat of cholera, reveals his moral deficiency. Mann not only shows that Schopenhauer wins over Plato on matters of sexual desire but also delivers a powerful vision of the split between artist and citizen. [End Page 321]
This is a highly original reading of Mann, given that most commentators have failed to recognize Schopenhauer’s influence on the writer. They have also failed to acknowledge the influence that the poet August von Platen had on Mann. Himself a homosexual, Platen spent most of his life trying, in vain, to establish a loving relationship with another human being. His diaries and poems reveal deep wonderings about love, particularly homosexual love, and meaningful relations, but above all, his attempt to come to terms with his homosexuality. In Platen, homosexual desire becomes acceptable because it is transmuted into a purified form in which the physical aspects and demands of the body are not pertinent. Mann’s novella, Kitcher claims, is far more complex, in that it is concerned not only with sexual identity and sexual yearnings that the society disapproves of but also with the particular way in which an artist responds to pure beauty. The question is, can the artist, who prides himself on the rigid discipline necessary for his role as an observer and mediator, maintain that discipline in the face of the beauty he seeks to celebrate?
In the third chapter, Kitcher analyzes the ambiguous scene of Aschenbach’s death, offering medical reasons for rejecting the dominant “death from cholera” hypothesis so as to show that Aschenbach dies from heart failure. He then moves on to analyze similarities between Mann’s book and Luchino Visconti’s film, in which the figure of a famous writer is replaced by that of a famous composer, taken to be modeled on or identified with Gustav Mahler. Such a departure from Mann’s work is often met with severe criticism, which Kitcher counters, claiming that Visconti’s film offers an “illuminating perspective on Mann’s story” (p. 133), particularly visible in the way it deals with the notion of death. Mahler and Mann are both preoccupied with their own finitude:
Like Aschenbach—and, I believe, like Mann—Mahler poses for himself, both in verbal reflections and in his music, the pessimistic challenge, seeing the incompleteness of achievement not merely as a contingent phenomenon (some are unlucky and fail to accomplish what they intended; others have enough time to realize their ends) but as a fundamental feature of human existence. Shadows fall across human life because death is inevitably premature, accomplishment inevitably incomplete, so that any human existence is a truncated form of its envisaged whole, a life deprived of meaning by the death that interrupts it.(p. 136)
Here, Kitcher meticulously analyzes the ways in which philosophical concerns can be expressed in a musical work, showing how episodes from Mahler’s life gave rise to the composer’s artistic choices. He is primarily interested in showing how Mahler, through his music, raises and develops philosophical concerns—primarily the inevitable finitude of human life and the possibility of valuing such a life:
The power of music—and the power of answers expressed in music—is grounded in something far more apprehensible than metaphysical speculation. … Mahler’s [End Page 322] finale for Das Lied is a philosophical contribution, one that goes beyond Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. … The temptation to attempt a verbal translation is understandable—but it ought to be resisted. Instead, we should allow the music to show what cannot be directly stated.(p. 171)
Music, like literature, is philosophically rich not because it argues for a particular point of view but because it shows different ways, not previously considered or thought of, in which experience can be understood. Arguing against skeptics, who claim that insights from art lack in justification and strength, and are at best episodic, Kitcher claims that they have the same epistemic status as concepts and attitudes developed through our life experience and socialization. They work by creating what he calls synthetic complexes. He writes, “Responsible building of such complexes should be reflectively stable; that is, as the reader or listener ponders the connections he makes in light of a full range of her antecedent attitudes and commitments, she should discover that the complex is sustainable” (p. 184).
A further cognitive work that synthetic complexes can inspire consists in uniting people in intellectual discussions on matters of agreement and disagreement: “In modifying our attitudes we should not simply be content to assess the fit of potential changes with the perspectives we currently have but also to explore the ideas and commitments of our fellows—we try to acquaint ourselves with the best of what is known and thought and felt” (p. 185). In this regard, scientific inquiries are not sufficient, given that “significant ethical discussion cannot be divorced from consideration of what matters in human life; nor can factual inquiry, even rigorous scientific inquiry, be detached from the values we properly endorse” (p. 185). Kitcher concludes, “If our encounters with art and literature warrant us in endorsing or rejecting particular claims about what is valuable, the sort of justification they provide is not ‘second rate’ or ‘tacked on’ but interwoven with the searches for evidence we view as our paradigms of rigor” (p. 185). In fact, when it comes to making peace with oneself and one’s life, philosophy sometimes remains silent on how to find value in what we did. It is in literature and music that “we may find answers we can live with and by” (p. 191).
Kitcher should be congratulated for developing one of the most encompassing accounts of aesthetic cognitivism (AC), a view according to which art is cognitively valuable and imparts knowledge via artistic choices. He offers insightful explanations of the underlying psychological processes that enable this cognitive exchange, which many cognitivists fail to do. One of the most rewarding aspects of the book is seeing how he links artistic choices and expressive features of artworks to their creators’ philosophical anxieties. Those who object to this kind of importation of biographical data into the art experience might frown at the depth of Kitcher’s analysis, but all those who praise art for its power to deliver knowledge will salute this account. [End Page 323]
My concern has to do with the role that biographical information has in connection to Kitcher’s form of AC. It is only by joining this set of information with specific details about the artistic/aesthetic qualities of the artworks that he ultimately brings forward the works’ “epistemic lessons.” It is undeniable that this reveals a new way of approaching these works, but I wonder whether it can still be claimed that it is the individual literary and/or musical work that is delivering cognitive benefits. The cognitive work, so to speak, is done by Kitcher’s unified account of the background information on the artist’s mental states and philosophical concerns, not by the work itself. Kitcher might argue that an interpreter can provide a more informed reading of a work, thereby enhancing the audience’s understanding and appreciation of it. There is value in the critic’s revelation, and perhaps not much can be gained by asking the question of who or what delivers the cognitive benefits. The answer will ultimately depend on how firmly one wants to ground cognitive benefits in the works themselves, rather than in some external factors.
Another set of concerns might arise regarding music’s philosophical potentialities. It is debatable whether instrumental music can convey content, but if there was ever a chance for this claim to be successfully defended, it is most certainly grounded in Kitcher’s analysis. He first explains how music accompanied by words might move us to consider philosophical issues, but he rejects the view according to which it is the words, not the music, that invite consideration of philosophical issues. Crucial is his analysis of the way that musical features advance the power of words that in the absence of such a musical background might not and probably would not have the power to reflectively move us and point to some new perspectves on philosphical problems. Once that is established, a listener can become more attentive when exposed to orchestral music. Knowing the philosophical interests of the composer, one can recognize the way in which the music reveals philosophical solutions that cannot be linguistically articulated.
There is a value in human life, despite the pain and failure that it inevitably brings and the fate that awaits us all: death. Literature and music can help us appreciate this, and we can live better, more fulfilled lives by attending to their deliverances. That is the message that radiates most forcefully through Kitcher’s book. Rich in its rewards, it is a highly enjoyable book that offers new dimensions on each new reading. Not only does it reveal marvelous depths in Thomas Mann’s literary opus, but it also opens our eyes to the immense artistic and cognitive potentialities of literature and music. Written by a true humanist, Deaths in Venice makes us wonder about our own commitment to the values and projects we hold dear, and leads us to reconsider what we find valuable in life. Mann is without doubt a master of letters, but it takes someone as infatuated by true art as Kitcher is to make the novelist’s vision shine through in its richest colors. [End Page 324]