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Death in Venice

Thomas Mann

Chapter 2

Chapter 1

Chapter 3a

Summary

Aschenbach is the son of a high-ranking legal official descended from a family with a long tradition of austere and disciplined service to the Prussian state. His mother was the daughter of a music director from Bohemia. The narrator explains that it was this marriage between disciplined conscientiousness and darker, more passionate inclinations that made Aschenbach the artist he is. We are told that Aschenbach achieved fame at an early age, and the pressure to produce, which he always felt, prevented him from ever knowing the carefree idleness of youth. Aschenbach's dutiful devotion to work, however, wreaks havoc on his naturally fragile health, and he is constantly battling illness. Thus, central to both his life and his writing is the notion that all great things can exist only in "defiant despite" of suffering, poverty, physical frailty, corruption, and passion. For him, art is the triumph over these torments. The heroes of Aschenbach's books are those who are able to enact this triumph. The narrator posits that such heroes are "the heroes of our age," and that the appeal of Aschenbach's writing is based on the fact that the members of his generation recognized in his works a celebration of themselves and their own hard work, pursued doggedly even on the verge of exhaustion. While Aschenbach was headstrong and intellectually radical as a youth, he now considers his greatest achievement to be his attainment of dignity.

Commentary

This section develops Aschenbach's character as a man who has overcome passion and the physical, achieving his successes by sheer force of will. Yet the fact that he has lived his entire life without really acknowledging his more impulsive side indicates potential future problems: According to Freud, whose works Mann had read, repressed psychological drives soon rise to the surface; we can safely assume that it will not be long before Aschenbach must face the rearing head of his own reigned in nature.

In addition to Freud, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche also deeply influenced Mann. Nietzsche wrote about the genesis of Greek tragedy, arguing against the cliché of the ancient Greeks as statuesquely serene figures in an ideal Mediterranean landscape; rather, he believed that the classic tragedies had to be generated by a people that was not only highly civilized and cultured but also passionate; only in the balance of these forces could art arise. Nietzsche described the Greeks as maintaining a balance between two forces, the Dionysian, or those associated with the god Dionysus, and the Apollonian, those associated with the god Apollo. While Dionysus was the god of fecund nature, spring, regeneration, wine and intoxication, and orgiastic extravagance, Apollo was the god of light, of form, that which shapes drives and instincts into clarity and order. While Dionysus was often associated with music--a passionate, engrossing art form--Apollo was associated with sculpture--a rigid, detached art form. Nietzsche used this polarity to explain what he saw as being wrong with late 19th-century Germany: He believed that the Germans were too "Apollonian," too stiff, too restrained, too cerebral to create truly great art. He predicted that the Dionysian forces would soon erupt if held in check too long and that the result could be devastating. Thus, Nietzsche used mythological terms to explain what Freud described in psychological terms. Mann attempts in his novella to effect a blend between the mythological and the psychological.

Also in this chapter, Mann draws a link between Aschenbach and his historical era: Aschenbach's work addresses the bourgeois, middle-class establishment, and his readers see themselves in his work. Thus paralleled, Aschenbach's psychological repression stands as a symbol for bourgeois Europe's repression; his overly Apollonian characteristics correspond to an excessive privileging of control and cold formality in the European sensibility. The parallel also extends to the fates of both the writer and his culture: Aschenbach's death will serve as a prediction of the death of the old hierarchy in the coming war.

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