Sunday, October 23, 2016


Life is in death and survival in friendship


This short novel by Thomas Mann has become a classic on its own merit first and then because he has been adapted to the cinema and the stage quite many times. The best known adaptations are Visconti’s film in 1971 and the opera by Benjamin Britten in 1973.

This book was also written at the end of Thomas Mann’s life and though it cannot really be said to be autobiographical, which anyway has no value to discuss and appreciate it, it is obvious that Thomas Mann has had that kind of experience first hand: becoming old, feeling death crawling and creeping behind the wings closer and closer, and attaching his dream of a second youth to the first youth one meets and sublimates into a fancy of beauty as an aesthetic dimension to cover up the deep psychological need to find a recipient for the mission of continuing the exploration of the world, mental and physical, intellectual and material, that one has done all along their life.

This need, this desire, this quest is universal among all artists and intellectuals, maybe among all human beings as the survival instinct of the mind. It cannot be fulfilled genetically. It does not lead to anything hormonal which could be seen as unethical, and would have been seen as unethical in Thomas Mann’s time: it would have been pedophilic love, since Tadzio is hardly 15, probably less. It is symbolical, spiritual, mental maybe psychical.

Apart from and beyond this personal existential remark, the book has tremendous qualities.

The first one is its shortness. The subject – in a way it is an artistic testament – is treated in very few pages with very little action but always precisely stated and clearly described. No useless embellishment on the action itself. That enables the author to concentrate on the sole mind of the main character who is a successful German author who has preached all his life the separation of arts from life, from passion, from sentiments, from feelings. Arts are supposed to cultivate beauty in themselves and to look for beauty in the world.

Gustav von Aschenbach is trapped by his own aesthetic ambition and practice when in his old age he meets with his eyes, and that will never be a meeting on any other level, and when his mind relays that vision into a deep reflection on what life is, what beauty is, what purity is. His eyes meet a young Polish youth that can be deemed to be 15 or less years old.

The main character is attracted to this “Knabe” as he calls him in German, “boy” as is translated in English, visually, hence by the only vision of the boy’s body since he cannot understand Polish and that foreign language becomes some kind of music. The shape of the body, the proportions, the flexibility and articulations of that body that is fit without being athletic, still young and not wrapped up in too much muscle and fat.

He is attracted by the face and the hair of this young teenager and at this level no one can describe the “beauty” of a face. Words can eventually describe the face but they cannot capture the beauty itself which is a very complex conglomerate of elements. The last attractive element is the light, very light indeed before the First World War, “nudity” of the young teenager since he is mostly on a beach in some bathing suit, which is a suit really. It only liberates or “undress” the arms and the legs from the knees down, maybe half thigh down. Visconti makes the boy bathe in the sea is some kind of swimming trunks that denude his body from the waist up. I am not sure at all that was standard in 1911.

This first quality of the book is amplified tremendously by the Greek mythical references all along the pages. I am not going to list them all but systematically they refer to love (probably identified as identical to intercourse) that leads to death in a way or another. Some of these gods or semi-gods are messengers of death or have the power of saving someone who is close to death or dying, like Zeus taking Dionysus in his thigh, or Zeus against and others turning some victims of jealousy into stars and constellations. These references establish a full parallel between the main character and these victims of love and jealousy.

But he goes one step further by referring to Socrates and Phaedo, particularly the death scene in Plato’s text, The Death Scene from the Phaedo, The death of Socrates drinking his hemlock to which he had been sentenced is to be set in parallel with the death of Gustav von Aschenbach in the story. Note here how the name of the character is conveying the idea of death: a river of ashes. A close study of these references and their mapping in the story would show how symbolical they are.

But let me give you one example of how the main character’s wording of his approach of beauty is also symbolical and of what. The original for “The happiness of writers is the thought that can be entirely emotion and the emotion that can be entirely thought,” is “Glûck des Schriftstellers, der ganz Gedanke, der ganz Gefühl, das ganz Gedanke zu werden vermag.“ Apart from the fact that I find the translation less concise, less poetic and more abstract in its use of the generic plural “writers” or the generic philosophical  definite article in “the thought” or “the emotion” and even “the happiness” where Thomas Mann had used the adjective “ganz” to particularize what thought or emotion he was speaking of, the thought and the emotion that the author was constructing or experiencing right now, hence the necessary singular of “Schriftsteller”

But the translation misses something more important: the symbolic music of the sentence. The first alliteration in /g/ seven times and the closing semi-alliteration in /w-v/ at the end bringing that seven to nine and the first alliteration in fact is one /g/ plus then alternating /ganz/ - /Gedanke/ - /ganz/ - /Gefühl/ - /ganz/ - /Gedanke/ which is a perfect David’s Star or number of Solomon, three adjectives-three nouns all carrying the same alliteration and alternating. It is obvious that the very deep and ancient wisdom of Solomon expanded into the seven days of the week of creation (6 days of work and one day of rest) or the seven days of the Holy Passion ending with the death and resurrection of Jesus in the last three days are turned into a diabolical reference to the Apocalypse, the Beast, the end of this world and life, and maybe salvation at Doomsday. The English translation is far from carrying that kind of symbolism.

This novella should be analyzed from that original German version to understand how Thomas Mann is a symbolical mind that sees beauty in those patterns, “Gestalten” would be the German plural word, that are both the symbols and the expression of the mind and the conception of beauty it develops or constructs. If we take this novella as being in the tradition of symbolism in German arts we find out that the death of Venice is also the death of Gustav von Aschenbach, and this latter death does not enable him to actually transmit the mission of continuing his work to Tadzio. The transmission is expressed at the end in the last look but in the reverse order: it is Tadzio who becomes Hermes and by looking back at Gustav from the sea and locking his eyes onto Gustav’s eyes takes him into the infinity of death and Gustav dies in his chair on the beach. Tadzio becomes the psychopomp of Gustav von Aschenbach into the immensity of space and death.

That is a phenomenal vision of mental and sqpiritual survival and the failure that Thomas Mann wants to express as for Gustav von Aschenbach who just did not have the courage to confront and brave social conventions and norms and establish contact and communication with Tadzio. This contact, this communication with a younger character who becomes the surrogate of his own youth and the continuation of his own life after his own death was close at hand but he did not choose it, he did not have the courage of surviving intellectually, spiritually by committing his remaining years of life to a pure and spiritual friendship that is love without the hormonal side of things. But this reveals an important element in Thomas Mann German psyche: he cannot imagine any friendship of this type in his society because he would be convicted (in a court of justice if necessary) of improper behavior. Just think of Oscar Wilde.

That sure is a masterpiece but its magnitude can only be captured in German. Just try to get it there:, many standards available.


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