Okay, we know what you're thinking. Decadent—like when you go back for fifths on cheesecake day at the cafeteria. Unfortunately, that's not exactly what we're talking about here. When we say decadent, we're talking about a particular writing style that we find well-represented in Death in Venice. So, let's dig in.
Decadence in the context of literature always has to do with death—the "dying out" of an ideal, but also the possibility of its rebirth. Now, as we discuss in "Tone," much of the irony in Death in Venice has to do with the "death" of the disciplined, European artist, represented in the story by Aschenbach, as an ideal model of artistic creativity. What we're more interested in here is the way this is paired with a certain style of writing.
And that's where the cheesecake comes back in. Yay, right? We love cheesecake. And pie. But we digress… The reason we call the writing style decadent also has to do with the text's indulgence in lyrical word-usage and description, especially in situations meant to appear shocking or terrible. Think about Aschenbach's vivid dream about the "stranger god." Or consider the descriptions of Tadzio's beauty and Aschenbach's desperate longing. Nothing springing to mind? Here, have a taste:
The way he stood in the belted white suit he sometimes donned for dinner, inexorably, innately graceful—his left forearm on the parapet, his feet crossed, his right hand on his hip—looking down at the minstrels with an expression that was not so much a smile as an indication of aloof curiosity, of courteous acknowledgment. From time to time he drew himself up and, puffing out his chest, pulled the white blouse down through the leather belt with an elegant tug of both hands. But there were also times when—as the aging traveler noted triumphantly, his mind reeling, yet terrified as well—he turned his head over his left shoulder—now wavering and cautious, now fast and impetuous, as if to catch him off guard—to the place where his admirer was seated. (5.19)
The narrator pays tons of attention to Tadzio, noting his every move with adjectives like "graceful" and "elegant," bringing him to life as the beautiful ideal he is for Aschenbach. We also get a wonderful description of Aschenbach's "reeling" mind, as well as his terror at the prospect of being caught. In this one passage, we get a perfect example of how Mann's writing style indulges in creating lyric beauty that never lets us forget its illicit content. Just as Aschenbach can't contain his feelings, the words flow freely in this one.