Book Review: Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (1912)

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My Rating: 5 of 5 stars

As long as we breathe, we live. We do not possess the power to embrace death at will. So, we live. And for living, we cling to a purpose. The purpose may be clear or clouded, animate or inanimate, expressed or hidden, stable or fickle but we have it nonetheless. Even the person accused of leading a purposeless life is surviving on the shredded purpose of vagrancy.

So it doesn’t come as a surprise that even Gustav Aschenbach, notwithstanding the fame and dignity safely held in his bag of accolades, gropes for purpose in his new found state of ripe mind. Nothing is a bigger curse for a writer than to have hit a plateau from where all the previous works appear a distant dream and the present air leaves nothing for the fertile imagination to latch on. In search of this elusive purpose, after declaring many destinations unfit for ideation, he halts at Venice at a quaint hotel and opens the window of his room to the sea, inviting both its calmness and ferocity to wash his rusted mind panes with inspiring waves.

And the sea obliges, in the form of the ethereal Tadzio, who happens to be a guest of the same hotel as Gustav. The stunning beauty of this young Polish boy of golden skin, flowing locks, delicately-crafted ribs and carefree demeanour, first catches Gustav unawares and then, slowly like a persisting rain, fogs his mind panes with sensual dew. His senses, in a natural gesture, follow Tadzio’s movements like a sunflower follows the sun’s trail. From the day he sets his eyes on Tadzio, he gets transported to a new world where he increasingly finds just the two of them, talking about art and beauty, exchanging life wisdoms and sinking in the loving companionship of each other.

But does this throbbing one-sided passion render a purpose to the debilitating parchment of his life or relegate it further to insurmountable lows? Hold the hand of Mann to find out. And yes, he has a lot to say in this compact work.

He softly pits intellectual beauty against corporeal beauty and questions whether attaining the fulsome body of the former, can, in any way, deride the necessity of the latter’s blossoming. He also nudges us to consider the propriety of actions taken under the influence of relationships which, in the safety net of sanguinity, can deluge the delicate fabric of morality. He also presses us to weigh the artistic liberties in the light of societal approvals and take a stand.

For the striking questions and delicately coherent wordplay, I was about to give this work a rating of four. But Mann snatched the solitary star from my hand by playing this masterstroke: A dream where Gustav has donned the garb of Socrates and Tadzio, of Phaedo and the former is giving his life lessons to the young warrior of tomorrow.

‘Because beauty, Phaedo, is the only thing that is divine and visible at the same time, and so it is the way of the artist to the soul. But do you believe, my dear Phaedo, that the one who reaches the intellectual through the senses can ever achieve wisdom and human dignity? Or do you believe (and I am leaving this to you) that it is a lovely but dangerous road that leads nowhere? Because you have to realize that we artists cannot take the path of beauty without Eros joining us and becoming our leader; we may be heroes in our own way, but we are still like women, because passion is what elevates us, and our desire is love—that is our lust and our disgrace. Do you see that poets can be neither sage nor dignified? We do not like final knowledge, because knowledge, Phaedo, has no dignity or severity: it knows, understands, forgives, without attitude; it is sympathetic to the abyss, it is the abyss.’

An artist is able when he can turn thought to emotion and emotion to thought with equal finesse. But he is legendary when he can turn a non-artist, artist. And I know Gustav, in the end, did both jobs well.

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[Image courtesy http://seenandheard-international.com]

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