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Exposing the inadequacy of art

07 April 2017

John Arnold examines the intense vision of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice

Looking on: Bjorn Andresen and Dirk Bogarde from the 1971 film of Death in Venice, directed by Luchino Visconti

Looking on: Bjorn Andresen and Dirk Bogarde from the 1971 film of Death in Venice, directed by Luchino Visconti

THE writer Thomas Mann (1875-1955) was born and grew up in Lübeck, in northern Germany. His father was a prosperous Protestant merchant and senator, his mother a beautiful and artistic Brazilian Roman Catholic. From 1891 to 1933, he lived in Munich, and then, because of his anti-Nazism, in exile, mostly in the United States.

In 1905, he married Katia Pringsheim, who was Jewish, and they had six children; but his diaries show that he was bisexual throughout his life — which, like his work, was not simple: he was torn between sense and sensibility.

Although he had been baptised into his father’s Lutheran faith, he was completely without religion, and was profoundly influenced by the nihilism of Friedrich Nietzsche. He even took it a step further: just as Nietzsche unmasks the superficial evasions of piety, philosophy, and art, so Mann unmasks the insufficiency of nihilism, too.

For him, a world without God is not a world without anxiety or introspection; and, although he frequently protested (too much) that his novels were not autobiographical, they are confessional.

They are characterised by intense self-examination, and an unending struggle between the civic virtue and duteous spirit of the North on the one hand, and the easygoing, all-accepting sensuality of the South on the other; between the Apollonian and the Dionysiac. (He takes for granted that his readers will understand Classical allusions, not least to the homoerotic culture of Ancient Greece.)

He rivals Tolstoy in his ability to analyse and dissect a single moment of reflection into intersecting and contradictory thoughts and emotions, self-deception, and specious self-justification. He also comes close to Dostoevsky — about whom he wrote perceptively — in relating creativity to sickness, and self-knowledge to insanity.

When Mann died in 1955, he had been crowned with honours, including the Nobel Prize for Literature for his monumental Buddenbrooks (1901), The Magic Mountain (1924), and many novellas, including Death in Venice (1912).

It is a tale simply told: Gustav von Aschenbach, a distinguished author, needs a holiday; and a series of misadventures takes him to the Grand Hotel des Bains on the Lido, in Venice. The damp, dull, overcast weather combines with a villainous gondolier, and an old roué (who is covered in cosmetics in a pathetic bid to pass for young), to produce an air of alienation and foreboding.

A beautiful 14-year-old Polish boy, Tadzio, attracts his attention; and attention turns swiftly, if imperceptibly, to infatuation. This infatuation is deeply erotic, but not overtly sexual. Gustav and Tadzio never meet or speak; the relationship is entirely one-sided, and exclusively visual and aesthetic; Aschenbach is entranced by beauty.

Mann, typically, was profoundly influenced by late-19th-century decadence, art nouveau, and “Art for art’s sake,” and also deeply suspicious and critical of them. He wanted to write about the effects of an irruption of Eros into the settled life of a successful and respected artist; and he toyed with the idea of taking as an example the late amour of the 74-year-old Goethe for the 17-year-old Ulrike von Levetzow.

He showed great courage in turning from a heterosexual to a homosexual theme, based on, but not copied from, the memory of an actual episode in his own life at the Grand Hotel des Bains, in Venice, the previous year.

In the story, although not in real life, infatuation soon turns into obsession. Aschenbach becomes what we would now call a stalker, and thus was vulnerable to ridicule and exposure — something that Mann had succeeded in avoiding. He used fiction to face his fears, and he subjected his hidden life to ruthless scrutiny, made bearable by overlapping layers of irony, ambiguity, and ambivalence.

Had he wished, he could have produced a vindication and celebration of Aschenbach’s love for Tadzio; but, as with Tolstoy, who could have given Anna Karenina the happy ending that his readers craved, artistic integrity and ethical realism made him choose tragedy as the antidote to farce. Not for nothing were Aeschylus and Sophocles his favourite dramatists, and conscience his constant companion in life.

When rumours of cholera begin to spread, despite the cover-up by the city authorities (with which Aschenbach colludes), the pace of the story becomes more feverish. A mistake with his luggage prevents his making an early escape; he takes this as a sign and sanction to stay with his beloved; and, by the time the Polish family decides to leave, he is already infected.

Not only the pace but also the prose heat up in descriptions of a grotesque impromptu concert, and a dream of a bacchanalian orgy, in which “his very soul savoured the lascivious delirium of annihilation.”

His fall from dignity (in German “Würde”, or “worth”, embracing both self-respect and social standing) is highlighted by his resorting to hair dye; “and his drooping, cosmetically brightened lips shaped an occasional word of the discourse his brain was delivering . . . with its tissue of strange dream logic”.

This final, fevered discourse is a Socratic soliloquy on beauty, its attractions and dangers. “For I must tell you, Phaedrus, that we artists cannot tread the path of Beauty without Eros keeping company with us.”

Aschenbach comes close to the notion of Original Sin when he says: “We necessarily go astray” (my italics). He exposes the inadequacy of art, the emptiness of celebrity, and the futility of fame when faced with inevitable tragedy.


The magisterial poise of our style is a lie and a farce; our fame and social position are an absurdity; the public’s faith in us is altogether ridiculous; the use of art to educate the nation and its youth is a reprehensible undertaking which should be forbidden by law.


It is a bleak vision of the universality of corruption, even of the best that life can offer, devoid of hope and of the possibility of redemption. The last thing that he sees on earth before his final collapse is Tadzio, on a narrow spit of land, apparently walking on water: an idol in a Twilight of the Gods.


The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.


Death in Venice by Thomas Mann is published in various editions, including one from Vintage Classics, Death in Venice and Other Stories, in a translation by David Luke, at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-099-42865-7.





Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice was published in 1912. To what extent do you think that this story is a product of its time?


How far, do you think, is the reader asked to sympathise, or empathise, with Aschenbach?


What is the relationship between beauty and corruption in Death in Venice?


Is this novella a parable about perfectionism and dignity?


Is paganism the chief spiritual influence in the book?


Which of the five senses is most acute in the story?


How compelling did you find Mann’s portrayal of Tadzio?


Mann once described himself as “a lover of death, an aesthete with a proclivity towards the abyss”. How is this reflected in Death in Venice?


What, would you say, is Death in Venice’s prevailing atmosphere?


What lessons does Mann’s novella hold for Christians in the 21st century?



IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 5 May, we will print extra information about our next book. This is The Virgin Eye: Towards a contemplative view of life by Robin Daniels. It is published by Instant Apostle at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9); 978-1-909728-52-3.


Book notes

The Virgin Eye, in the words of one reader, “is like having an amazingly wise old uncle showing you how to live; how to be truly alive”. It encourages us to see the world as if for the first time, continually renewing our awareness of God in the everyday. It cultivates mindfulness, playfulness, and attentiveness to our inner lives, making a space beyond the rush of our technology-driven world.

Prayerful and packed with quotations from literature, theology, and scripture, The Virgin Eye sends its readers on a spiritual journey. It urges contemplation and re-evaluation of our relationships with of God, ourselves, and the people around us.


Author notes

Born during an air raid in 1941, Robin Daniels spent his early years in San Francisco, before returning to Blackpool, where he would spend much of his life. After training as a Jungian psychoanalyst, he ran bereavement and marriage-enrichment groups in church settings, and sat on Westminster Central Hall’s Social Responsibility Group. He was a supervisor at the St Marylebone Centre for Healing and Counselling, and chaired a reflection group for hospital chaplains.

He died of bronchopneumonia in December 2012, 18 months after being received into the Roman Catholic Church. He had completed most of the work on the book several years earlier, and it has been edited by his widow since his death.


Books for the next two months:

June: The Case for Working with your Hands by Matthew Crawford

July: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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