Mann’s novella is entitled Death in Venice for obvious reasons, but it is as much about love and desire as about death. Aschenbach wastes away while becoming increasingly obsessed with his desire for Tadzio, whom he sees as the very personification of beauty itself, and most of the work follows Aschenbach’s obsession with his beauty. The importance of beauty in the novella is often shown through its focus on Aschenbach’s voyeuristic gaze. It is of course through sight that Aschenbach apprehends Tadzio’s beauty, and he spends much of the novel staring surreptitiously at the boy. At first, Aschenbach tries to appreciate Tadzio’s beauty in a detached, aesthetic way, appreciating him like a work of art. However, he is unable to maintain this distance for long, and soon his artistic infatuation with Tadzio’s physical appearance turns into an intense erotic desire for the boy.
As Aschenbach is completely overcome by Tadzio’s beauty, the novella asks whether beauty (and, by extension, desire) is a good or bad thing. This question is primarily raised through allusions to the Phaedrus, a work by the Greek philosopher Plato in which Socrates and Phaedrus debate whether love is good or bad. In this work, Socrates argues that beauty inspires the lover because it reminds his soul of heaven. Beauty is, for Socrates, a path to virtue. This may all work very well in theory, but in practice this does not seem to be the case for Aschenbach. When Aschenbach has a vision of the Phaedrus, he re-imagines Socrates as using his elaborate theory simply to try to woo the young, attractive Phaedrus. Far from bettering Aschenbach, his experience of beauty in Tadzio seems to harm him. It makes him into a ridiculous, pathetic character—an old man wearing makeup who stalks a young boy—and even contributes to his own death. Aschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio’s beauty even leads him to wish for harm to Tadzio: he is happy when he thinks that Tadzio might die young, because this means his beauty will not fade with age.
Mann’s novella illustrates the crucial difference between writing about beauty and desire, and experiencing it. For much of his life, Aschenbach wrote beautifully and thought about beauty and form in an abstract way. Similarly, Plato is able to justify desire for beauty philosophically in the Phaedrus. However, when Aschenbach actually experiences beauty in the flesh, he is overwhelmed and consumed by passion. Mann does not completely condemn beauty, though. It is possible that Aschenbach is simply too obsessed with Tadzio’s beauty, and that it is still possible to appreciate beauty and submit to desire in a more moderated, healthy way. When Aschenbach deliriously speaks near the end of the novella as if he were Socrates, he tells Phaedrus that he leaves it up to him to decide whether beauty leads to wisdom or whether it is “truly a path of error and sin.” Similarly, Mann leaves this question open-ended for his readers: does beauty always lead to one’s downfall, or can we fall in love with beautiful people or things without succumbing to Aschenbach’s fate?
Beauty Quotes in Death in Venice
What was here prepared, in fact already accomplished, was that “miracle of reborn naïveté” that the author mentioned expressly somewhat later in one of his dialogues, not without a mysterious emphasis. Strange connections! Was it an intellectual consequence of this “rebirth,” of this new dignity and severity, when at about the same time one could observe an almost immoderate strengthening of his feeling for beauty, that noble purity, simplicity and evenness of form that henceforth lent his productions such a striking, indeed conscious, stamp of mastery and classicism?
With astonishment Aschenbach observed that the boy was perfectly beautiful. His face, pale and charmingly secretive, with the honey-colored hair curling around it, with its straight-sloping nose, its lovely mouth and its expression of sweet and divine earnestness, recalled Greek statues of the noblest period, and, along with its extremely pure perfection of form, it was of such unique personal charm that the onlooker thought he had never come across anything so felicitous either in nature or in art.
“He is very delicate, he is sickly,” thought Aschenbach. “He probably won’t live to a ripe old age.” And he avoided accounting to himself for the feeling of satisfaction or consolation which accompanied that thought.
But at that moment he felt this casual greeting die away and grow silent in the face of the truth that was in his heart; he felt the enthusiasm in his blood, the joy and pain in his soul, and realized it was for Tadzio’s sake that the departure had been so hard on him. . . Then he raised his head and with his two hands, which were hanging down limply over the armrests of the chair, he made a slow turning and lifting motion, bringing the palms upward, as if he were opening his arms and holding them out. It was a gesture that bespoke an open welcome, a calm acceptance.
Soon the observer knew every line and pose of that body which was so elegant, which offered itself so freely; with joy he greeted anew each already familiar detail of his beauty; there was no end to his admiration, his delicate sensual pleasure. . . His honey-colored hair curled close to his temples and down his neck; the sun illuminated the down at the top of his spine; his finely delineated ribs, his well-formed chest were readily visible through the scanty covering of his torso; his armpits were still as smooth as a statue’s; his knee hollows shone, and their bluish veins made his body look as if it were formed of some more pellucid material. What breeding, what precision of thought were expressed in this outstretched body, perfect in its youthfulness! But the severe and pure will, which, operating obscurely, had managed to bring this godlike image into the light of day—was it not well known and familiar to him, the artist? Was it not operative in him as well when, full of sober passion, he liberated from the marble block of language the slender form which he had seen in his mind and which he presented to the world as an icon and mirror of intellectual beauty?
Often, when the sun went down behind Venice, he sat on a bench in the park to watch Tadzio, who, dressed in white with a sash of some bright color, was enjoying himself playing ball on the rolled gravel court; and it was Hyacinth whom he thought he saw, Hyacinth, who was fated to die because two gods loved him. Yes, he felt Zephyr’s painful jealousy of his rival, who forgot his oracle, his bow and his cithara so that he could constantly sport with the beautiful boy; he saw the discus, directed by cruel jealousy, striking the lovely head; turning pale himself, he caught the limp body, and the flower that blossomed from the sweet blood bore the inscription of his unending lament.
It was the smile of Narcissus bending over his reflection in the water, that profound, enchanted, long smile with which he holds out his arms to the mirror image of his own beauty—a very slightly twisted smile, twisted by the hopelessness of his endeavor to kiss the lovely lips of his reflection, coquettish, curious and quietly tormented, deluded and deluding. He who had received this smile dashed away with it as with some fatal gift. . . . He threw himself onto a bench; beside himself, he inhaled the nighttime fragrance of the plants. And, leaning back, with arms dangling, overcome and repeatedly shuddering, he whispered the standard formula of longing—impossible in this case, absurd, perverse, ludicrous and yet even here still sacred and respectable: “I love you!”
That was Venice, the obsequious and untrustworthy beauty—this city, half fairy tale, half tourist trap, in whose reeking atmosphere art had once extravagantly luxuriated, and which had inspired composers with music that gently rock you and meretriciously lulls you to rest. The adventurer felt as if his eyes were drinking in this luxuriance, as if his ears were being wooed by these melodies; he also recollected that the city was sick and was disguising the fact so it could go on making money; and he was more unbridled as he watched for the gondola that glided ahead of him.
For beauty, Phaedrus, take note! beauty alone is godlike and visible at the same time, and thus it is the path of the sensual man, young Phaedrus, the artist’s path toward intellectuality. . . . Or do you believe instead (I leave the decision to you) that this is a path of dangerous charm, truly a path of error and sin, which necessarily leads one astray?
His head, leaning on the back of the chair, had slowly followed the movements of the boy who was walking far out there; now it rose, as if to meet that gaze, and fell onto his chest, so that his eyes looked up from below, while his face took on the limp, intensely absorbed expression of deep slumber. But it seemed to him as if the pale, charming psychagogue out there were smiling to him, beckoning to him; as if he were raising his hand from his hip and pointing outward, floating before him into a realm of promise and immensity. And, as he had done so often, he set out to follow him. Minutes went by before people hastened to the aid of the man who had slumped sideways in his chair. He was carried to his room. And, before that day was over, a respectfully shocked world received the news of his death.