Aschenbach is an old man, and part of why he decides to go to Venice when he does is because he feels his time is running out. He misses his youth, and this is part of why he becomes so obsessed with Tadzio. Youth is associated with beauty in Mann’s novella, and as an artist, Aschenbach adores the beauty of youth, which inevitability fades with age. As this may suggest, Aschenbach’s obsession with youth becomes a bit perverse and extreme. He originally views the old man with dentures and makeup on the boat to Venice as a pathetic, grotesque character. However, he himself essentially becomes this man by the end of the novel, as he tries to appear younger, disgusted with his aged appearance.
Time is also important on a larger scale in Death in Venice. When Aschenbach boards the boat to Venice, he feels that he loses track of time. Several times in Venice, Aschenbach becomes temporally disoriented and envisions himself in ancient times. He imagines that he is Socrates, talking to Phaedrus outside of classical Athens, and also has an intense dream of an ancient Dionysian orgy. Classical antiquity is an important site of fantasy for Aschenbach. He often compares Tadzio to mythological characters or classical sculptures, idealizing the ancient past as a world full of beauty. And indeed, much ancient Greek writing puts great importance on beauty and love (for example, Plato’s Phaedrus). In 5th-century Athens, there was also a widespread practice of pederasty, sexual relationships between younger and older men. So, Aschenbach’s visions of the ancient past can also be seen as a desire for the supposedly more licentious sexual practices of antiquity. The degree to which Aschenbach’s desire for Tadzio is explicitly sexual is slightly ambiguous. He longs both for his own youth and for the “younger” historical period of ancient times, and projects both of these ideals onto Tadzio. Through the character of Tadzio, then, Aschenbach lusts after the idea of youth itself. However, this cannot be completely disassociated from Aschenbach’s love for the particular young character of Tadzio.
Through Aschenbach, Mann shows the destructive, often perverse consequences of an excessive idealization of youth. Aschenbach not only becomes a grotesque figure and perishes from his intense passion, but even wishes harm for Tadzio (hoping that he will die young). Youth is always fleeting, and time is always flying. Perhaps then we cannot help but have some nostalgia for earlier times. Aschenbach demonstrates, though, what can happen when someone indulges in extreme versions of this desire for youth and for the past.
Youth, Age, and Time ThemeTracker
Youth, Age, and Time Quotes in Death in Venice
And fortunately discipline was his inborn inheritance from his father’s side. At forty, at fifty—just as he had in years past, at an age when others are spendthrift daydreamers, blithely postponing the execution of great plans—he began his day early with jets of cold water over his chest and back, and then, a pair of tall wax candles in silver sticks shining over his manuscript, for two or three fervently conscientious morning hours he would sacrifice upon the altar of art the strength he had garnered during his sleep.
One of these passengers, in a light yellow summer suit of an extravagantly stylish cut, red tie and jauntily uptilted Panama hat, outdid all the rest in jollity with his squawky voice. But scarcely had Aschenbach taken a closer look at him, when with a sort of terror he realized that the youthful impression was spurious. This was an old man, there could be no doubt. Wrinkles surrounded his eyes and mouth. The faint crimson of his cheeks was rouge; the brown hair beneath the straw hat with its colorful band was a wig; his neck was scraggy and sinewy; his little stuck-on mustache and the tiny beard on his chin were dyed; the complete set of yellow teeth, which he displayed as he laughed, was a cheap denture; and his hands, with signet rings on both index fingers, were those of an old, old man. With a feeling of horror Aschenbach watched him and his intercourse with his friends.
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.
Day after day now the god with the glowing cheeks, nude, steered his fiery team of four through the regions of the sky, his yellow tresses floating behind him in the east wind that was also vigorously blowing. A whitish silky sheen covered the expanse of the indolently rolling pontos. The sand burned. Beneath the silvery, glittering blue of the aether, rust-colored canvases were spread in front of the cabanas, and in the sharply outlined patch of shade that they afforded people spent the morning hours. But the evening was also delicious, when the plants in the park emitted a balmy fragrance, the heavenly bodies up above went through the paces of their round dance, and the murmuring of the benighted sea, quietly rising, cast a spell over the soul.
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!”
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.