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Death in Venice

Thomas Mann

Chapter 5b

Chapter 5a

Chapter 5c

Summary

The next day, Aschenbach asks a clerk at a British travel agency about the bactericide and finally forces him to admit the truth: Asiatic cholera has migrated west from India; it is now at several Mediterranean ports. In Austria, a man recently returned from Venice had been one of the illness's first victims--hence the German papers' reports. The Italian authorities have hushed up the news for the sake of the tourist industry. The authorities' corruption, in addition to the predominant sense of insecurity and crisis, has led to an abandonment of morals by the lower classes, evident in increasing criminality and drunkenness; commercial vice is now assuming extravagant forms that until now were unknown to the area and were "indigenous only to southern Italy or oriental countries." The clerk urges Aschenbach to leave, as a quarantine will be instituted any day. Aschenbach considers warning Tadzio's mother and returning home. But he remembers the Byzantine mortuary and the strange figure who first incited him to travel, and the thought of his life before these experiences fills him with repugnance. He becomes inflamed thinking of the passionate adventures he and Tadzio could have if they were to stay on in a city full of chaos.

That night, Aschenbach has a dream in which the setting is his own soul. He hears an uproar of thundering noise, including a howl with an extended "u" at the end, and he is aware of only one word, like an announcement, "the stranger-god!" A crowd of dancing, howling, torch-bearing humans dressed in animal skins tumbles down a mountainside: All seem to comprise a primitive ritual to worship the god. As the worshippers fly into an orgiastic frenzy around a huge wooden phallic symbol, Aschenbach realizes that they symbolize himself, and he is savoring the lascivious derangement within his innermost being. Aschenbach awakens from the dream devastated and irrevocably enslaved to the "daemon-god."

Commentary

It is significant that the cholera is Asian in origin: With the addition of this detail, the Indian jungle becomes a triply loaded motif. Psychologically, it is the locus of Aschenbach's repressed impulses; it was a jungle landscape that he envisioned when he first felt the whim to travel, to indulge in the joys of a warmer climate. Mythologically, India is said to be the birthplace of the cult of Dionysus. Now, at the scientific/empirical level, it is the place of origin for the disease that will kill Aschenbach.

Here the disease is also directly referred to as the cause of moral debauchery: The authorities' attempts to deal with it have been immoral, and that immorality has reaped further immorality. Immorality itself is here shown to be not only an isolated sin but also a self-propagating entity: Immorality breeds immorality. For a society, or a person, unused to dealing with passion, when that passion escapes it is here portrayed as escalating out of control. Aschenbach has entered a state out of which there is no escape; his initial unrestrained taste of passion has proven inescapable, his own personal pomegranate seed.

The dream sequence definitively links Aschenbach's descent into passion with the worship of Dionysus. And whereas Aschenbach originally worshipped Tadzio, as a sort of Apollonion statuesque symbol of intellectual beauty and art, he is now the "god" that Aschenbach worships. This does not mean that Tadzio himself, as a character, is equated with Dionysus; Tadzio is Dionysian in the way he is feverishly, wantonly, uncontrollably worshipped by Aschenbach. The shift from Apollonion to Dionysian is entirely the progression of Aschenbach. Tadzio himself remains a kid who likes playing on the beach.

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