Death in Venice

by Kerrin Ross Monahan

Death in Venice (1911) by Thomas Mann, is a story that deals with mortality on many different levels. There is the obvious physical death by cholera, and the cyclical death in nature: in the beginning it is spring and in the end, autumn. We see a kind of death of the ego in Gustav Aschenbach’s dreams. Venice itself is a personification of death, and death is seen as the leitmotif in musical terms. It is also reflected in the idea of the traveler coming to the end of a long fatiguing journey.

It must also be noted there are no women in the story with prominent roles. The hero’s wife is long dead and his daughter has been married and gone for many years. Any women in the story are merely in the background, unnamed and colorless—totally insignificant. Mann has purposely left them out because they are life givers, the symbol of fertility and birth. (The only one scene where women have an active role is in the degrading and violently promiscuous dream.) There are definite homosexual overtones evident almost from the moment Aschenbach sees Tadzio—the object of his obsession.

By far the most important level of death appears in the crumbling of Aschenbach’s life principles: the giving up and letting go of all those ideals that molded his character and had shaped his work and guided every aspect of his entire life. It is a complete handing over of oneself to all that was heretofore anathema to him. The mind, reason, rationality, and all that goes with it: service, dignity, and restraint all buckle and die—all fall in the wake of the onslaught of passion and chaos.

Dreams play a major role in the story, and, throughout the history of literature, sleep has often been considered to be a form of death. Freud (who was professionally prominent at the time the story was written) believed when one is awake, one’s ego acts as a censor of the libido, however, when a person is asleep and dreaming, there is a repression (“death”) of the ego, or conscious mind, thus allowing the unconscious wishes (which were, for the most part, sexual) to then be fulfilled (Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis-Sigmund Freud, Chps. 9, 14). It is ironic that Aschenbach, who had written his book The Abject “as a rebuke to the excess of a psychology-ridden age” (13) succumbs to an egoless state, not only in the last grotesque dream, but directly after it in his conscious mind as well. From this point on, Gustav becomes totally shameless. (We have seen this theme of loss of shame as being a kind of death, and actually leading to literal death as well, in Salman Rushdie’s Shame.)

Mann’s use of Venice as a backdrop is critical. Venice, an ancient city, inexorably sinking beneath the water, a “forbidden spot” (38) with “stagnant lagoons” (28) the “fallen queen of the sea” (36). Venice, with a “faintly rotten scent” (37) “half fairy tale, half snare” (55) “that hid sickness for love of gain . . . (56). The city that had “a disreputable secret [like] his own” (57).

In musical terms, death is the leitmotif, the theme keeps reappearing: heard in the overture (the first stranger Aschenbach sees in Munich), continually sounded in the Venetian passages (more odd men), swelling to a crescendo of hysterical laughter and swirling pipes of Pan, and, in the finale, of fading notes washing into the outgoing Adriatic tide. It brings Wagner to mind, who, with failing health, went to Venice and died there suddenly in 1883. His music was considered to be the highest expression of romanticism in European music and he was the originator of the “music-drama,” wherein the dramatic needs of the story take precedence over the music itself. (Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia Vol. 24, p. 388). There is a touch of irony here, since Gustav had represented the antithesis of romanticism until he met Tadzio. Tadzio’s very name, like “two musical syllables” (32) echoed in the flute notes of Gustav’s orgiastic dream. One is also led to think of the “siren song” of love and emotionalism which led him the break up upon the rocks of passion.

The collection of mysterious emissaries all luring Aschenbach on, starts with the “snub-nosed” red haired traveler with a summer straw hat and rucksack and “long white glistening teeth” (4) positioned under the door of a Munich mortuary. It is here Gustav is seized with the overwhelming desire to travel, which he had never before cared to do. Then, the seedy boat ticket seller with goat-like beard and bony yellow fingers, reminding Gustav of a “circus director” or “croupier” (16). Next, the “horrible old fop” (24) with a “rakish Panama” hat, wig, dyed beard, and hideous false teeth, followed by the “outlaw boatman” in Venice (24) with short snub nose and straw hat, who bared his teeth to the gums (22). Lastly, there is the strolling musician, the “Neapolitan jester” (59) who of course has the ubiquitous red hair and snub nose. These carbon copy agents of death, along with boatmen, porters, managers, and the barber, are all trying to bring Gustav closer to death physically or mentally. (It is only the English clerk at the travel bureau who tries to send Aschenbach out of danger.) We finally see Aschenbach, garishly attired like these mysterious beings: dyed hair, rouged cheeks, with a red tie and a straw hat with a “gay striped band” (70)-and we know his inward degradation has now progressed outward.

Tadzio, of course, is the most significant male figure of all-the primary lure. By not leaving Venice until summer’s end, he is assuring Aschenbach’s death, the final destination on his mad journey. It was Tadzio who unwittingly inspired him to lose his lifelong principles of rigorous duty, discipline, and conservative classical formalism. Tadzio stands for many things: he is Gustav’s muse, he is Art, which “heightens life . . . gives deeper joy . . . consumes more swiftly” (15). Art, which was “war-a grilling, exhausting struggle” (56). He is the essence of beauty, “chaste perfection of form” (25). He is Narcissus, Hyacinthus, Phaeax, Eros, Phaedrus to Aschenbach’s Socrates, his lover, the “charmer” (54) with twilit grey eyes” (74) whose milk white skin was never burnt by sun and sea air (51). Tadzio was also the “crouching tiger” (6) in Gustav’s early hallucination, the “stranger god” in his later demoniacal dream, he was the “pale and lovely summoner” beckoning on the sandbar (75) the plague, the pit, the abyss-Death itself. (It is interesting to note Tadzio, with all his perfect beauty, has imperfect teeth, “rather jagged and bluish, without a healthy glaze” (34), teeth remarkably like all the other emissaries of death.) Ironically, Aschenbacher feels the youth is ill and won’t live long, when actually it is he who is to die.

All his life, Gustav Aschenbach had been figuratively dead. He was caught up in his work, “dour, steadfast, abstinent” (56) to the total exclusion of soul-nourishing feelings. In Venice, after being overwhelmed by Tadzio’s beauty he finally allows the barriers to fall, relaxes completely, and comes alive for the first time in his life. Inspired by Tadzio, he starts writing with emotional intensity, but this turned out to be an arduous and consuming job that left him “exhausted . . . broken” (47). His excessive passions tipped the scale entirely in the other direction and it was this total abandonment of former ideals that killed him. Gustav lacked the balance he felt would have been the artist’s highest joy: when thought and feeling are able to completely merge one into the other (46). He had been able to write solely rationally, then, solely emotionally, but was unable to produce a melding of the two.

It was there in decadent Venice, surrounded by water (symbol of not only birth and baptism, but also of death) that Gustav Aschenbach, led there by Death’s legions, finally gave up the ghost, unable to effect a compromise, a victim in a final terrible battle of the classicism and romanticism gods, caught in the crossfire of what Nietzsche labeled the Apollonian and Dionysian principles. Since Mann has extensively employed paganism and mythology (excluding any Christian references) one can surmise perhaps Aschenbach’s shade would then have been rowed across the Styx (in a black gondola), or more possibly he would have followed Tadzio’s outwardly pointing finger and joined Poseidon’s ranks, plunging “into an immensity of richest expectation” (75) seeking “refuge . . . in the bosom of the simple and vast” [ocean] (31). Gustav thought of the boy as Phaeax, one of the sea god’s sons (29). He had seen this godlike creature “with dripping locks . . . emerging from the depths of sea and sky” (33).

What more fitting manner of leaving the earthly fray than by returning to “the birth of form . . . the origin of the gods” (33)?

Works Cited
Freud, Sigmund.Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Chps. 9, 14.
Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia Vol. 24, p. 388.
Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice. 1911. New York: Vintage, 1958.

House of Yes & Death on Long Island

by KEM Huntley

Parker Posey Hangs on the Wall of Hové® New Orleans.
The House of Yes and Love and Death on Long Island are two indie presentations that have more than 90210 cast members in common. Without getting too caught up in histrionics and endless details that often attend melodrama, each film offers the same premise: mad love exists.

Each film holds the same expectation, as well. The viewer will not look askance at the “all’s fair in love and war” tactics, but will instead nod their head in affirmation that the heart does what it damn well pleases.

For recent widower and recluse, Giles De’ath (John Hurt), the main character in Love and Death on Long Island, written and directed by Richard Kwientniowski and loosely based upon Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, the story begins as he ventures into the present day (overall story concern) after accepting (story driver-decision; overall story solution) an invitation to be interviewed on the “wireless.” When asked if he uses a word processor for his novels, he is bemused, tartly replying he is a writer; he does not “process words.”

It is here established that the notable British author is completely out of touch with the 20th century (overall story domain-universe), illustrated again as the camera focuses on him ruefully looking through the front door mail slot at forgotten house keys, his gaze taking in an archaic life.

As Giles is locked out and must wait before his niece is available to bring the extra set of keys, he decides to go to the cinema. He mistakenly walks into a matinee of “Hotpants College II,” instead of the latest E. M. Forster adaptation. Rising to leave (main character symptom-reaction), he is dumbstruck by the beauty of its dreamboat star, impact character Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestly), a screen heartthrob he will later compare to a painting of the writer Chatterton hanging in the Tate Gallery.

At this point, emphasis in the overall story throughline is placed upon the thematic conflict of attraction vs. repulsion, the clash between obsolescence and technology (overall story benchmark-progress) and high art and popular culture.

Giddy Giles begins the quest his own fictitious characters engage in (main character domain-physics) to learn (main character concern) all about the object of his desire. Hampered by the ministrations of his nosy parker housekeeper, and well-intentioned literary agent (main character problem-protection), he restricts their possible interference (main character approach-do-er) of his foray into “finding beauty where no-one (at least in his milieu) seems to look”: fan magazines, situation comedy, B grade movies.

While mooning over Ronnie, Giles comes to terms with the present (outcome-success). He is compelled to purchase and master the video player and “goggle box,” open an account at the video store (to rent the Ronnie film festival, “Tex Mex” and “Skid Marks”), hook up an answering machine to take messages while cutting and pasting his Ronnie collage, and finally, jetting to Long Island (main character response of proaction), where he will strategize (main character thematic issue) how to meet the actor.

Giles holes up in the roadside motel of Ronnie’s town, run by yet another interfering and overprotective landlady. Inside he scratches out tactics to determine his film idol’s whereabouts: “1. Hire detective 2. Bribe postman” (logical problem solving style), but it is his painstaking investigation (main vs. impact story catalyst) that pays off when he ascertains Ronnie’s exact location and trumps up a relationship with the lovely Audrey, Ronnie’s fiancée (overall story dividend-learning).

Like an infatuated schoolgirl, Giles sits anxiously by the telephone for hours (main vs. impact character inhibitor-need), until the beautiful couple rings up with a dinner invitation. Ronnie represents the emotional manipulation (impact character domain-psychology) of mass media, yet he repudiates (impact character problem-non-acceptance) his teen beat status-despite his photogenic “files of smiles” he wants to be a serious actor (impact character benchmark).

His initial appraisal (main vs. impact character thematic issue) of the old gentleman is based on Giles’ fabrication and the teen’s own conviction that “British stuff is cool,” yet this first impression (appraisal) is his critical flaw. Giles flatters the boy with what he needs (impact character thematic issue) to hear-he has “the look of a young Olivier” and the potential (main vs. impact character story problem) for Shakespeare.

Astute Audrey understands, however, that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” and arranges (impact character unique ability-permission) to effectively remove Ronnie from Giles’ advances (main character growth-stop).

Giles reacts (main vs. impact character story symptom) to Ronnie’s impending departure by confessing (main vs. impact character response-proaction) his desperate love to the boy in the local hamburger dive. That each has a different point of view (main vs. impact character story domain-mind) is underscored as they face each other from across the vinyl booth. It is clear Giles is as steadfast (main character resolve) in his disdain for the popular arts as he is in his devotion to Ronnie, contemptuously dismissing Ronnie’s adolescent audience and American “contacts” and entreating the actor to fall in with a traditional European relationship of mentor and student, on the order of Rimbaud and Verlaine.

Rattled, Ronnie refuses to consider the offer (overall story consequence-conscious), and the relationship, heretofore certain (main vs. impact character story solution) to flourish is ended. In the erstwhile author’s world, the quest is not a success without sacrifice.

Giles faxes a love letter to Ronnie that includes a revised scene for “Hot Pants College III.” On the way to the airport he inquires of the cabby if faxes can be retrieved. Shaking his head no, the cab driver asks Giles if he would like to return to the motel anyway. Giles knows there is no turning back (story limit-optionlock). With a smile (judgment-good), he slips on the new wave sunglasses-a gift from Ronnie-and waves the driver to continue on (main character solution-inaction).

Ronnie’s change is depicted on-screen in his new film as he delivers Giles’ eulogy to his character’s mother, an indication he will now aspire to something more than performing for the “rabble in the pit.”

In the House of Yes, written and directed by Mark Waters, the overall story concern is how the memory of the day JFK died–the same day Daddy tried to leave:

“Everybody remembers that day. Exactly what they were doing.”

The overall story goal, in particular, is the memory twins, (main vs. impact story domain-universe) Jackie-O (Parker Posey) and Marty (Josh Hamilton), share of their illicit affair that occurred the day they attended an Ides of March party . . . Jackie O costumed as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy pirouetting:

“. . . in a pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat and blood on my dress. Well, ketchup actually and other stuff too, like macaroni kind of glued on like brains. It was more tasteful than it sounds.”

Jackie-O is another main character zealous (do-er) in her efforts (main character domain-physics) to fulfill desires (main character problem). When impact character Marty, comes home to Washington D.C. Thanksgiving 1982-“20 years after the Kennedy assassination”-and announces (story driver-action) his engagement to Lesly (Tori Spelling), he has sealed his fate (main vs. impact character issue).

The circumstances (main vs. impact character domain-universe) of the twins’ relationship are such that any plan for a normal life Marty attempts to implement (impact character concern-conceptualizing) is anarchy (main vs. impact character problem-chaos).
Marriage is an act the unhinged Jackie-O will steadfastly (main character resolve) not allow.

Mama (Genevieve Bujold), very French Gothic, demands a private word with her son: Mama: You, a fiancée here, why?
Marty: I love her and I’m just trying to follow procedure (impact character symptom-order).
Mama: Marty, your sister has been out of the hospital less than six months. Last week she nearly lost it because the seltzer water was flat and you bring a woman home! Not just a woman, a fiancée! An anti-Jackie! Are you trying to push your sister over the edge?Marty: No.
Mama: Just what, then, are you trying to do?
Marty: Be normal.

Family secrets and lies (overall story thematic counterpoint-falsehood), exposed or withheld, are the weapons used against artless Lesly, the fiancée who smells like powdered sugar. The family knows (overall story symptom) Marty is making a mistake. Marty had loved a lizard; Jackie-O flushed it down the toilet.

Lesly’s perception overall story problem) of Marty’s glamorous twin is mistaken-she calls Jackie-O spoiled to which Jackie-O replies-“Oh please. If people start telling the truth (overall story thematic issue) around here, I’m going to bed.” What Lesly doesn’t consider (overall story benchmark-conscious), until almost too late, is that Jackie-O is insane (overall story solution-actuality) and extravagantly dangerous.

An unexpected hurricane extinguishes the electrical power and all but Marty and Jackie-O retire for the evening. By candlelight, the twins play their favorite game, the reenactment of Jack Kennedy’s assassination. This leads to a reenactment of their own affaire d’ amour, unaware Lesly is watching. Crushed, Lesly allows the twins’ younger brother, Anthony (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), to make love to her, unaware Mama is watching.

Confronting the naïf with what she knows (overall story symptom): “A mother doesn’t spy, a mother pays attention!”-she thinks (overall story response) Lesly will now leave alone. Instead, Lesly persuades Marty to believe the man she fell in love with is the man he truly is (impact character thematic issue of state of being), not the image he has of himself (impact character thematic counterpoint-sense of self). She implores Marty to return with her to New York.

Destiny (main vs. impact character catalyst), however, prevails. Jackie-O cajoles her brother into one more dead Kennedy charade, with the promise he may leave afterwards. He foolishly does not suspect (impact character critical flaw) she may fire the pistol they have used to pretend, despite the fact Jackie-O has shot him in the past (main vs. impact character concern). Marty is gunned down, and buried in the back yard next to his father-the romantic memory of gallant men: Jack, Daddy, and Marty, preserved intact (outcome-success).

In voice-over, Jackie-O reassures us: “Don’t worry about Marty. A close family like ours has to stick together. We cleared out a nice place for him out back, next to Daddy so he would stay right here with me, where he belongs (story judgment-good).

Love and Death on Long Island and the House of Yes approach obsessive, irrational love with humor and compassion for its main characters, and a distant nod to their impact characters. Emphasis in each is placed upon the main vs. impact story, almost to the exclusion of the overall story throughline, much like lovers heedless to the world around them.

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NoHo Artist: @maxbussellart

“There should be a place where only the things you want to happen, happen.”

Maurice Sendak

Max Bussell paints in proximity to the Maurice Sendak Elementary & Arts, Communication & Technology Magnet Center, which speaks to the wild rumpus energy of the NoHo Arts District. Write Between the Lines commissioned his vision of a window view. Scroll for the steps and reveal.

Max Bussell: Did I ever tell you I was named after Max from Where the Wild Things Are? I always felt such a connection to the book . . . and that Maurice Sendak passed away on my birthday . . . I found interesting.