Discovery in Venice: Setting and Sexuality in Mann’s Narrative
One thing workaholics are tired of hearing is “you need a vacation!” The classic workaholic has no idea when they have worked enough, and usually has trouble making the decision to take a break for even a short period of time. Workaholic Gustav von Aschenbach, a middle aged writer living in early 20th century Germany, is in desperate need of a vacation to clear his mind and recharge. His life is comparable to that of a machine, constantly working without break and lacking true meaning. Aschenbach’s life goal is to maintain a high status in society and to be continually recognized for his great work, and consequently he is left with no time left for real introspection. It is because of this that his life is a monotonous, never ending cycle of superficiality and oblivion to his own identity and, more specifically, to his homosexuality. In 20th century Germany homosexuality was forbidden, and sexuality itself was a topic that was swept under the rug. Aschenbach’s superficial goals conflict with this part of his identity, for in order for him to achieve success he must deny his sexuality entirely. This built up frustration causes him to yearn for vacation, for “a fresh scene, without associations,” (15) and after a little bit of traveling he ends up in the city of Venice — little does he know that Venice is the perfect place for him to break out of this cycle of repression that consumes his life, for it allows him to feel as though many societal constraints and expectations have been lifted. In Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, certain characteristics unique to Venice work to expose and to strengthen Aschenbach’s long suppressed homosexuality.
The symmetry between Venice’s forbidden sickness and Aschenbach’s own evil secret relieves him of his guilt, and provides him with a sense of comfort and satisfaction that allows his inner nature to flourish. For the most of Aschenbach’s stay in Venice he struggles with his sexuality. Aschenbach feels as though his sexuality is a dark and evil secret, and it is because of this that, at first, he does not understand nor accept it for what it is. He continually denies his feelings for Tadzio out of fear of his own emotions. One day, as Aschenbach is watching Tadzio, his heart begins “throbbing unpleasantly fast, while his breath came in such quick pants that he could only have gasped had he tried to speak.” (46) After he experiences this sensation he says to himself, “That must be the Love-God himself, that makes us hang our heads at sight of beauty and weighs our proud spirits low as the ground.” He “played with the idea-he embroidered upon it, and was too arrogant to admit fear of an emotion.” (47) This overwhelming experience of emotion scares Aschenbach, and leaves him in a state of denial of his true feelings. He believes these feelings are wrong and that they should be kept secret from himself and others, causing him to disguise them as something they are not.
Venice, too, has an evil secret that is hushed up by those who know it. There has been a deadly outbreak of Cholera in Venice, yet the Venetians deny it in the interest of sustaining its imag e in the same way that Aschenbach denies his sexuality to uphold his image. The idea that Venice is hiding something under the guise that all is well gives Aschenbach “a dark satisfaction. The city’s evil secret mingled with the one in the depths of his heart…” (53) Once he finally figures out what is going on in Venice, his “knowledge that he shared the city’s secret, the city’s guilt-it put him beside himself, intoxicated him…and he was giddy with fugitive, mad, unreasoning hopes and visions of a monstrous sweetness.” (65) The feeling that he shares the guilt of his dirty secret with Venice –that Venice is his coconspirator– causes him to change his entire mindset about his homosexuality. Instead of denying it or dressing it up as something else, he is able to accept it and consequently break away from his old “moral sense” that caused his self repression. Once he understands and accepts Venice’s sickness, he is able to understand and accept his own “sickness.” This new awareness of Venice’s secret gives way to an intense and horrifying dream, after which Aschenbach is “shattered, unhinged, powerless in the demon’s grip. He no longer avoided men’s eyes nor cared whether he exposed himself to suspicion…” He feels that the truth has “leaked out; despite all efforts to the contrary, panic was in the air.” (67) Ultimately, this knowledge of the city’s sickness frees him from his self repression, and allows him to act on his emotions without caring what the outside world will think. When Aschenbach felt he was alone in dealing with his secrets, he was filled with fear and guilt. However, it is because of Venice’s secreted sickness that he no longer feels shame or guilt for his homosexuality, and that he is able to express his true nature.
Venice’s ocean relaxes Aschenbach, providing him with a comfortable and convenient setting for his obsession with Tadzio to develop and consequently for his for his subconscious homosexuality to come out of its shell. The beach and ocean scene has always been one that pleases Aschenbach, it has the “power to beguile him, to relax his resolution, to make him glad…” However it is not the calming sound of the waves or the crystal clear water that brings him joy, it is “the sight of sophisticated society giving itself over to a simple life at the edge of the element.” (29) Aschenbach’s “love of the ocean had profound sources: the hard-worked artist’s longing for rest…” and a “yearning… a lure, for the unorganized, the immeasurable, the eternal-in short, for nothingness” (30) The ocean has the power to transport him “to Elysium, to the ends of the earth, to a spot most carefree for the sons of men … without effort or struggle… ” (40-41) Aschenbach finds joy at the beach because it makes him feel as though the constraints and expectations of society have been lifted; he takes pleasure in the idea of society abandoning its norms because he subconsciously desires to abandon his norms.
The beach is the only place in which one can sit and watch people (including young children) in swimwear play games or go swimming without the risk of looking foolish or creepy. The altered status quo allow Aschenbach to feel comfortable watching Tadzio for hours every day. It is these “regular morning hours on the beach which gave him his happiest opportunity to study and admire the lovely apparition… this immediate happiness, this daily recurring boon at the hand of circumstance, this it was that filled him with content, with joy in life, enriched his stay, and lingered out the row of sunny days that fell into place so pleasantly one behind the other.” (41) In this way, the beach is an incredibly convenient spot for Aschenbach’s subconscious homosexuality to creep into his conscious actions. At the beach, Aschenbach is able to let himself go, to stop constraining his desires as he is forced to everywhere else. He is able to “let his eyes swim in the wideness of the sea, his gaze lose focus, blur, and grow vague in the misty immensity of space.” (30) Essentially, he is able to detach from his very serious and repressive nature, and give control to his true subconscious emotions and desires.
In addition to this, the ocean has the ability to enhance Tadzio’s beauty, making him even more desirable to Aschenbach and thus strengthening his feelings. Aschenbach constantly notices Tadzio in relation to the sea; he would “see him come up, on the left, along the margin of the sea; or from behind, between the cabins..in the blue and white bathing-suit that was now his only wear on the beach…” And the majestic view of the distant sea “formed the background which set off his figure.” (42) Not only did the beach give Aschenbach the otherwise very rare pleasure of seeing Tadzio in his bathingsuit, but it also served as a beautiful setting to highlight Tadzio’s God-like features. By lifting certain societal constraints and accentuating Tadzio’s beauty, Venice’s ocean plays a very important and unique role in exposing and strengthening Aschenbach’s sexuality.
In Death in Venice, Thomas Mann stresses the importance of escaping from the everyday cycle of life and refreshing the mind. He shows that the key to doing this is to encounter and experience unfamiliar things in a foreign environment. However, our world is becoming more and more homogenous; one can travel hundreds of miles away to a resort, for instance, and find the exact same culture and society as they do back at home, without being exposed to the authentic culture of the area. A popular travel destination for wealthy New Yorkers is the Hamptons, in which one can find the exact same people and lifestyle and they can find in New York. A vacation to a place in which everything is familiar does not accomplish what it intends to; it does not allow one to break out of the rhythm of the everyday and to refresh and rediscover their true authentic self — Aschenbach is only able to begin understanding himself when he is exposed to Venice’s secret sickness, something that sets Venice apart from everywhere else. Thomas Mann demonstrates that a real escape and exposure to the unusual is essential to one’s mental health, something that, if staved off for too long, can lead to what once may have been small mental problem to fester into something that completely consumes a person. It is for this very reason that, for our own sake, we must push back this homogeneity and strive to create a world where different cultures aren’t hidden from us, but they are instead uncovered and shared with the rest of the world.
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