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Richard White LOVE, BEAUTY, AND DEATH IN VENICE Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice is a sustained and very powerful meditation upon the proper relations of art and beauty, eros and death. In particular, even though the story is set in what was then contemporary Venice, Mann emphasizes the perennial nature of the themes and issues that he considers by using imagery and allusion to evoke the mythical atmosphere of ancient Greece and by dwelling upon the classical parallels to Aschenbach's own obsession. Thus it is clearly the Socratic ideal of the older male lover and his younger male beloved which orients Aschenbach's own perception of his relationship to Tadzio, while this also forms the most obvious framework in terms of which we as readers are meant to understand and even to judge him. Again, at two crucial points in the text Mann inserts his own version of a conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus, in which Socrates' position in Plato's original dialogue is first affirmed and then emphatically rejected. In this respect, the final resolution of the story, with Aschenbach's moral degeneration and death, really seems to call into question the Platonic conception of beauty as a means to the higher end of the Good. From the first discussion of Aschenbach's own artistry to the final verdict upon the power of art, Death in Venice may therefore be viewed as a paradigm case of a work of literature which comments effectively upon a philosophical position. In the present essay, I will argue that Death in Venice represents a powerful response to Plato and every other philosopher who has argued in favor of the redemptive power of art. Clearly, though, this discussion requires us to consider in what respect "literary" conclusions can have philosophical validity. For even if Mann's story is entirely compelling, it is not clear how it could serve as the 53 54Philosophy and Literature critique ofa particular philosophical position, which presumably stands or falls with argument. In effect, this analysis of Death in Venice can illuminate the interplay of philosophy and literature, and may force us, in the end, to question the absolute distinction between them. The "story" of Death in Venice is quite straightforward and may be briefly told: Von Aschenbach, a distinguished German writer, is seized one day with a profound longing for travel. He decides to go to Venice, and after a couple of curious incidents with an "old-young man" on the ferry, and a mysterious gondolier, he arrives at his hotel. Here, Aschenbach soon notices an exceptionally beautiful Polish boy. After a futile attempt to leave, he gradually becomes obsessed with Tadzio, and he even follows his family on their excursions to Venice. Meanwhile, it is rumored that Venice is in the grip ofa plague. Aschenbach eventually discovers the full extent of the sickness, but rather than leave he continues to follow Tadzio. On the same day that he finds out that the boy's family is leaving, he dies as he watches Tadzio on the beach.1 Now although the actual events ofDeath in Venice are clear, the overall intention or "message" of the story remains profoundly ambiguous. It is fairly obvious, for example, that we are meant to associate the progress ofAschenbach's obsession with Tadzio with the progress of the plague. In the text, almost as soon as he admits his obsession (when he whispers the "hackneyed ... I love you"), he discovers the full extent of the sickness in Venice (DV, p. 52). Regardless of our own moral ideas, it is apparent that Mann wants us to regard Aschenbach's obsession as a moral degeneration which is the inward parallel of the plague itself. There must be some kind of a lesson here, but what is it that the story is warning us against? At this point, the indeterminacy of literature, the apparent impossibility ofa final univocal meaning, stands as an obstacle to the philosophical appropriation of the text. Could it be that Aschenbach 's insistence upon self-discipline is morally correct and that he fails only because in Venice he foolishly surrenders his guard? Or is this strict self-discipline the cause...


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pp. 53-64
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