One often thinks of a writer’s life and work as two very different, separate things. Death in Venice, however, shows that there is a close connection between an artist’s lived experience and work. As the narrator explains, for example, the heroism of many of Aschenbach’s characters has a close connection to his own disciplined self-restraint. His writing takes a real toll on his own body, as his wearied face shows. Aschenbach’s readers only see his finished products, and don’t realize the links between his writing and his life, as with Aschenbach’s well-received essay that he writes while in Venice. The beauty of its writing is owed to his fascination with Tadzio’s physical beauty and form. The public’s ignorance of the circumstances of Aschenbach’s writing, the narrator suggests, is a good thing: the inspiration of Aschenbach’s writing in his desire for Tadzio would mar the final product. Unlike his readers, though, Aschenbach cannot separate his writing from his life. He often blurs the distinctions between life and art, as when he imagines himself into the Platonic dialogue Phaedrus as Socrates, or when he sees Tadzio as a work of art. Mann’s novella thus explores how the categories of life and art, truth and fiction, cannot be kept separate for the artist. The autobiographical resonances of the story (Mann actually vacationed in Venice with his wife once, where he became fascinated by a young Polish boy) further blur these distinctions between art and the artist.
In addition, Mann examines more generally the artistic temperament through his representation of Aschenbach. In this, he was heavily influenced by the ideas of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche about the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Inspired by the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus, Nietzsche saw these categories as the two essential tendencies of art. The Apollonian is associated with rationality, order, and harmony, whereas the Dionysian is associated with intoxication, ecstasy, and revelry. Aschenbach begins the story as an extremely Apollonian character, who practices writing with discipline and self-restraint, and never indulges much in pleasure. By the end of the story, however, he becomes excessively Dionysian and is consumed by passion, emphasized in his intense dream of a wild, orgiastic crowd (which is reminiscent of scenes of ancient worshippers of Dionysus). Rather than attaining a healthy balance between the Apollonian and Dionysian, Aschenbach tries too hard to suppress his Dionysian side, with the result that it eventually overcomes him entirely, leading to his death. In exploring these contradictory sides of Aschenbach’s personality, Mann presents Nietzsche’s duality as governing not only art, but the artist, as well.
Art and the Artist ThemeTracker
Art and the Artist Quotes in Death in Venice
Overstrained by the difficult and dangerous labor of the morning hours, which precisely at this moment called for extreme circumspection, discretion, forcefulness and exactitude of the will, even after the noon meal the writer had been unable to restrain the continued operation of the productive machinery within him—that motus animi continuus in which, according to Cicero, the nature of eloquence consists—and had not found the relieving slumber that, with the increasing tendency of his strength to wear out, was so necessary to him once in the course of the day. And so, soon after tea, he had sought the outdoors, in hopes that the fresh air and activity would restore him and help him have a profitable evening.
Too occupied with the tasks set for him by his own ego and by the European spirit he represented, too burdened with the obligation to create and too undisposed to diversions to be a proper admirer of the colorful outside world, he had been perfectly satisfied with the view of the earth’s surface that anyone can acquire without venturing far away from his own circle of interests, and he had never even been tempted to leave Europe.
To be sure, ever since he was a young man this kind of dissatisfaction had meant to him the essence and inmost nature of talent; and it was for its sake that he had curbed and chilled his emotions, because he knew that emotions tend to be satisfied with a happy approximation and with less than perfection. Were his enslaved emotions now taking their toll by abandoning him, by refusing to further his art and lend it wings, by taking away with them all his delight in form and expression?
His forebears had been officers, judges, bureaucrats, men who had led their disciplined, respectable and frugal lives in the service of king and state. Deeper intellectuality had embodied itself among them on one occasion, in the person of a preacher; more swiftly flowing and sensual blood had entered the family in the previous generation through the writer’s mother, daughter of a Bohemian orchestra conductor. It was from her that he derived the signs of foreign ancestry in his appearance. The marriage of sober official conscientiousness with darker, more ardent impulses produced an artist, this particular artist.
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.
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?
Significant destinies seemed to have left their mark on his head, which usually leaned sideways as if in pain; and yet it was art that had here undertaken that task of forming the features which is usually the work of a difficult, agitated life. . . Yes, even on a personal basis art is an enhancement of life. It makes you more deeply happy, it wears you out faster. It engraves on the face of its servant the traces of imaginary, intellectual adventures, and with time, even when his external existence is one of cloisterlike calm, it makes him spoiled and fastidious, producing a weariness and nervous curiosity that could hardly be generated by a lifetime full of extravagant passions and pleasures.
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 loved the sea for deep-seated reasons: because of the hard-working artist’s yearning for repose, his desire to take shelter in the bosom of undifferentiated immensity from the demanding complexity of the world’s phenomena; because of his own proclivity—forbidden, directly counter to his life’s work, and seductive for that very reason—for the unorganized, immoderate, eternal: for nothingness.
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?
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.
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.