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  • Death in Venice and the Aesthetic Correlative
  • Gary Johnson (bio)

Much of the recent criticism of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (indeed, much of literary criticism in general) has taken an ethnographic turn. Critics are increasingly reading Mann's novella from explicitly cultural perspectives that include gender criticism and New Historicism.1 Critics who tend toward these approaches usually describe how the behavior of Gustav von Aschenbach (Mann's protagonist) is revealing of or at variance with the cultural norms that prevailed at the moment of composition. According to John Burt Foster's politico-cultural reading, for example, "The longing gaze of an elderly German writer at a Polish boy [Tadzio] ... has raised a host of cultural issues."2 These include, among others, "experiences of multiplicity in border regions" and "anxieties about the real effectiveness of both German and broader Western traditions and values."3 Robert Tobin, in a less metaphoric and more gender-based cultural reading of this novella, argues that the protagonist's behavior can be used to identify him (and his author) with early twentieth-century gay culture in Germany. Thus, "Aschenbach's decision to go for a walk in the English Garden," according to Tobin, "is ... intriguing when viewed from a gay perspective, for that [specific] public park ... has been a meeting place for male homosexuals since its construction at the end of the eighteenth century."4

Such cultural approaches have provided readers with new, expanded perspectives from which to appreciate this most enigmatic work. Through such readings, Aschenbach has emerged as a much more interesting and complex figure, and the setting of the novella has shown itself to be far richer than we might originally have believed. Collectively, our descriptions of Death in Venice are becoming increasingly "thick," to borrow a term from the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. There [End Page 83] remains, however, one culturally relevant aspect of this work that has not received its due attention: the aesthetic. A closer examination of the aesthetic culture out of which both Thomas Mann and his protagonist emerge can deepen our understanding of the text. Specifically, I believe that Aschenbach's character issues from a distinct aesthetic history and that that history in turn determines Aschenbach's attempt to construct a public identity and his response to the figure of Tadzio. Both Aschenbach's conception of himself and his response to Tadzio depend heavily on the rich tradition of German aesthetic philosophy and criticism, a tradition that includes figures such as Friedrich Schiller, Johann Winckelmann, and Gotthold Lessing.

The centrality of aesthetic issues in Death in Venice demands that we pay closer attention to them in our interpretations, particularly as regards character. Critics have always recognized the aesthetic elements in Mann's novella—Aschenbach's status as an author, the wondrous prose that Tadzio inspires, references to classical beauty and to Plato's Phaedrus and Symposium. But these studies have treated aesthetics thematically rather than constitutively.5 We have recognized, in other words, that the book is on one level about aesthetics, but have failed either to recognize or to articulate how aesthetics has made the text and its characters signify what and how they do.6

Turning to a typical, but important, passage from Death in Venice, we can begin to understand how aesthetic considerations not only reveal something of Aschenbach's character (psychology, if we want to call it that), but are absolutely crucial in producing Aschenbach as a character. In the fourth chapter, where Aschenbach's apotheosizing of Tadzio culminates in a burst of aesthetic productivity and, finally, in "that page-and-a-half of choice prose that soon would amaze many a reader with its purity, nobility, and surging depth of feeling," Aschenbach takes shape for us not only as an artist but also as a historically-determined aesthetic figure.7 Indeed, more important than the page-and-a-half that Aschenbach purportedly produces here is the narrator's ironic undercutting of that achievement, a rhetorical act that thrusts to the fore aesthetic, cultural, and historical issues.

Immediately after informing the reader of Aschenbach's production the narrator remarks that it is good that the world knows only that work and not...


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