Thomas Mann in Death in Venice, published in 1912, engages in a disquisition regarding art and life. The story set in Germany revolves around Gustav Aschenbach and his necessity to liberate from the restraints of mind and follow his passions, resulting in emerging complications among concepts of love, life, death, and art. A creation of a complex space of love emerges when Aschenbach falls in love with a young Polish boy named Tadzio, which leads to a problematization of ideas like desire and sexuality. Thomas Mann’s novella remains a text pondering over contradictory elements of life and death, security and passion, love and restrain, and finally desire and norms.
[T]he idea that nature trembles with rapture when the intellect bows in homage to beauty (Mann 37).
Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy written in 1872 engages in elaboration of Nietzsche’s earliest pondering over philosophy of tragedy as a platform for enunciation of both desires/passions and reality/beauty. He uses the trope of Dionysus and Apollo to discuss this intense interaction between two differing aspects of life and how tragedy resulting from this space of interaction not only helps us experience reality at a deeper, passionate level, but the Apolline makes the element of suffering and impulse within existence a little less tragic, and the Dionysiac makes the systematic, perfect, utopic, dream-like appearance of world full of passion and intensity, heightening the corporeal sensuality of life.
Dionysiac art, too, wishes to convince us of the eternal delight of existence – but we are to seek that delight not in phenomena themselves but behind phenomena. It wishes us to acknowledge that everything that comes into being must be prepared to face a sorrowful end. (Nietzsche80)
This paper shall explore the concepts of Dionysian and Apolline as portrayed within Death in Venice and The Birth of Tragedy, and discuss an intersection of these elements within Thomas Mann’s text. At a secondary level, this paper shall engage in an application of Theory of Desire by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and explore the significance of passion and sexuality within this desire, resulting in a failure of channelization of this intense desire, leading consequently to death of Aschenbach.
And thus the emotion that had now come over him so belatedly and so suddenly was quickly tempered and rectified by his reason and by the self-discipline he had practiced from his youth(Mann 4)
Tracing the Apolline within Death in Venice, Gustav Aschenbach is established as a character whose reason, self-discipline and knowledge overpower his passions, and intimacies. There’s an appreciation of world and its beauty but his life is marked with no indulgence, with no experimentation, leading to Aschenbach as a character of strict rules and stricter monotony. Like a traditional artist of forms and structures, there’s a sense of servitude and respect when it comes to creation of art for Gustav, this ingrained and institutionalized channelization of Aschenbach’s passions, and indulgence leads to an overwhelming imagery of Nietszche’s Apolline bind of the Dionysian to restore stability and illusion of beauty.
The Greeks knew and felt the fears and horrors of existence: in order to be able to live at all they had to interpose the radiant dream-birth of the Olympians between themselves and those horrors. (Nietszche 22)
The creation of an Apolline authority emerged from the necessity to channelize or control the frenzied passions and emotions of the brooding Dionysian. The Apolline creates a veil of Maya, or illusion between this world of intensities and reality, leading to an appearance of utter beauty, and structure, which but in the end is part of illusion. Apollo the god of plastic art, or visual art, defines the very recesses of structure and stability, which controls the mobility of Dionysiac indulgence, intimacies, and especially suffering, which holds the immensities that could startle a person’s core. The establishment of this idealistic authoritative figure was in reaction to this inability of mankind to systemize this primal and strong wave of desires, and hence Apolline norms that were established formed a demarcation between itself and the Dionysian chaos, allowing occasional and controlled flow of aspects from other side.
It was an urge to travel, nothing more; but it presented itself in form of a real seizure, intensified to the point of passionateness; in fact, it was like a delusion of the senses. His desire was clairvoyant; his imagination… summoned up a representative sampling of all the wonders and terrors of the variegated earth. (Mann 3)
Gustav Ashenbach’s ultimate fall into decadence of passion not only escalates as he moves away from the familiarity of his hometown to the exotic and unknown boundaries of Venice, but with the introduction of a consuming desire that he feels towards the young Polish boy Tadzio while vacationing not only reinforces the theme of Dionysian desires but also comments on this unprecedented shift of sexuality once unbound by familiar restraints of society. This need to travel, experience, and explore, not only awakens a passionate call for indulgence and inspiration and creation through a repressed primal self, but the sense of liberation that enraptures Aschenbach is related towards allowing himself to devour this intoxicating emotion and experience, as opposed to actual emotional liberation, where he is eventually bound by his love for Tadzio and succumbs to death due to his passionate necessity to be around the young boy, even though fully aware of the threatening spread of Cholera.
Without a single image, the Dionysiac musician is himself nothing but primal suffering and its primal resonance (Nietzsche30).
The Dionysiac within The Birth of Tragedy becomes almost an archetypal space of primordial experiences and emotional influx. It is heavy with the portrayal of ephemeral quality of life and heightens a sense of suffering at the end of every experience, hence the Dionysian is accentuated with an intoxicated pleasure of the now, as opposed to Apolline which avoids a quality of ephemeral life and follows ideals. Dionysian experience of life is almost carnivalesque that encourages absolute indulgence and immersion of one self within the realm of desires, passions, and intimacies, which more often shatter the frail norms established by illusion of civilization and reveal a maddening and passionate spirit of man. It’s the Dionysian impulse within man that provides him with fervent connection to art, indulging in creation of self through erratic flow of these restricted emotions.
Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice functions as a literary space where structured bliss and eternal suffering collide, consequently leading to Aschenbach’s unprecedented death. This tragic fall of Aschenbach not only accelerates due to his inability to channelize his desires and restrict his instincts, but from this space emerges the complication within the spheres of sexuality, where not only Aschebach is thrown into a frenzy of sexual deviance, that of pedophilia, but he engages in arrant idealism of Tadzio, transforming his moral, structured reality into a space of absolute abundance and intensity.
He who has received this smile dashed away with it as with some fatal gift. He was so shaken that he was compelled to flee…”You shouldn’t smile like that! Listen, no one should smile at someone else that way!”…he whispered the standard formula of longing- impossible in this case, absurd, perverse, ludicrous…still sacred and respectable: “I love you!” (Mann 42)
Discussing this concept of desire both within Death in Venice and The Birth of Tragedy as a component of Dionysian, philosophy and psychology both indulges in an ontological dialog of desire. Desire within some branches is considered as a form of catalyst for motion within beings, desire becomes a necessity for acquiring goals although reason when coupled with desire provides it not only with a moral stature but by constraining the flow of desire and directing it, focuses on moral relevance of the goal and the mode engaged in acquirement of those goals. Within both branches Desire is defined as a primal part of being that emerges from a lack and is provided structure through the human power of reasoning, as opposed to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari who discusses desire not as a component emerging from lack but an active, positive reality of human nature, forever producing, not to be restricted but allowed to flow.
Desire causes the current to flow, itself flows in turn, and breaks the flow. (Deleuze & Guattari 5).
According to Deleuze and Guattari desire is ever active and ever producing element of being. It is free flowing and refuses to be structured or channelized. Placement of this desire-production/function within a capitalist society, leads to imposition of certain restrictions upon desire, forcing it to remain stagnant, and channelizing it towards “goals” which functions, in this case, in tune with societal norms and moral values. A resistance against this territorialization of desire not only results in an establishment of desire as an anomalous element which needs to be erased, but within literature, this rebellion is treated either with forceful imposition of hegemonic ideals or reason, or leads to death of the indulging character, as portrayed within Death in Venice.
In The Birth of Tragedy the Apolline aspect of art functions, one may say, as a structuring of these impetuous desires that cannot be understood through the perception of reasoning and beauty. Although within this text Nietzsche represents tragedy as inclusion of both the Apolline and Dionysian, without the one overpowering the other, resulting in creation of tragedy that not only helps us experience an illusionary bliss but reduces the severity of imminent suffering and death.
From the foundation of all existence, the Dionysiac substratum of the world, no more can enter the consciousness of the human individual than can be overcome once more by that Apolline power of transfiguration, so that both of these artistic impulses are forced to unfold in strict proportion to one another, according to the law of eternal justice. (Nietzsche117)
In Death in Venice the very movement of Aschenbach out of the familiar structures of hometown could be taken as a trope for abandonment of repressive and familiar systems that constrained the character. Aschenbach’s indecisive, passionate, and impulsive Dionysiac love and aspiration not only overpowers his Apolline reason but engages in a tussle with the very conformity that he is habitual too in his mannerism. His deliberate ignorance of an epidemic due to his captivation by Tadzio not only portrays this slow crumbling of realities, but an overpowering flow of unrestricted desire is accentuated, leading to his reverie like tragic death at the end of the text.
Ritchie Robertson in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann discusses Aschebach’s ability of creation of art after being infatuated by the young polish boy Tadzio. He discusses this in accordance with an autobiographical relevance although one could gauge this point introspectively and discuss emergence of a prosaic art through experiences of passions and impulse as a trope for inclusion of Apolline structure within Dionysian impetuousness.
The Birth of Tragedy and Death in Venice both indulge in a discussion regarding art and passion. Where Nietzsche speaks of importance of inclusion of Dionysian within the structures of Apolline art, especially the art of music where melody purely belongs to Dionysian vein, he discusses of art, as a space for inclusion of both these aspects of life and not promoting or projecting an erasure of Dionysian experiences due its perceived uncouth, unrestrained, and dark desires. Resonating an idea of “Yin and Yang” Nietzsche discusses necessity of balance between the two opposing qualities of life, which could lead to an heightening of experience of both art and reality if appreciated in togetherness as opposed to unitary figure.
Death in Venice in certain aspects becomes a portrayal of this ideology and discusses at subtle level the destructive force that possesses Dionysiac desires. Although unintentionally, one could explore the imposed necessity of social consciousness to mold, define, and territorialise sexuality and desires, where a form of sexual deviance like that of pedophilia cannot be thoroughly understood, appropriated, and channelized, where one, especially the reader, cannot fathom how to respond to Aschenbach’s sincere love and affection for Tadzio. These complications of Dionysiac desires awaken within the reader through sheer intensity of the character towards the young boy, with an inability to explore and establish a comfortable diagnosis of it.
Mann’s Venice moves away from structured formality of his hometown, and indulges in unfamiliarity and exuberance, leading to abundance of passion, love, and intensities, with a space left for readers to problematize obscure concepts of pedophilia, life, and death, through a Dionysian perspective.
Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice. Trans. Stanley Applebum. New York: Dover Thrift Publications, 1995. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Trans. Shaun Whiteside. England: Penguin Group, 1993. Print.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1983. Print.
Robertson, Ritchie, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann. Cambridge: Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 2002. Print.