Study Guide

Death in Venice Quotes

  • Lust

    His desire sprouted eyes, his imagination, as yet unstilled from its morning labors, conjured for the earth's manifold wonders and horrors in his attempt to visualize them: he saw. He saw a landscape, a tropical quagmire beneath a steamy sky—sultry, luxuriant, and monstrous—a kind of primordial wilderness of islands, marshes, and alluvial channels; saw hairy palm shafts thrusting upward, near and far, from rank clusters of bracken, from beds of thick, swollen and bizarrely burgeoning flora; saw fantastically malformed trees plunge their roots through the air into the soil, into stagnant, shadow-green, looking-glass waters, where, amidst milk-white flowers bobbing like bowls, outlandish stoop-shouldered birds with misshapen beaks stood stock-still in the shallows, peering off to one side; saw the eyes of a crouching tiger gleam out of the knotty canes of a bamboo thicket—and felt his heart pound with terror and an enigmatic craving. (1.6)

    Aschenbach's desires are first awakened in the form of a desire for the exotic. Think that's a bit of a leap? Consider this: Some of these images, like the "hairy palm shafts" that are "thrusting upward," have some pretty obvious sexual connotations, implying that the exotic has something to do with the erotic.

    What one saw when one looked into the world as narrated by Aschenbach was elegant self-possession concealing inner dissolution and biological decay from the eyes of the world until the eleventh hour; a sallow, sensually destitute ugliness capable of fanning its smoldering lust into a pure flame, indeed, of rising to sovereignty in the realm of beauty; pallid impotence probing the incandescent depths of the mind for the strength to cast an entire supercilious people at the foot of the Cross, at their feet; an obliging manner in the empty, punctilious service of form; the life, false and dangerous, and the swiftly enervating desires and art of the born deceiver. Observing all this and much more of a like nature, one might well wonder whether the only possible heroism was the heroism of the weak. Yet what heroism was more at one with the times? (2.7)

    The narrator opens a window into Aschenbach's imagination, in this case, into the world that he invents in his fiction. Still, the idea of an "elegant self-possession concealing inner dissolution and biological decay" sounds a lot like the character of Aschenbach in Death in Venice. We can think of this passage as a sort of blueprint for analyzing Aschenbach's desire for Tadzio as a "smoldering lust" that briefly becomes a "pure flame," rising up into the "realm of beauty" out of a "sensually destitute ugliness." But, does that really jive with how Aschenbach is portrayed?

    Eyes glazed over, a cigarette between his trembling fingers, he swayed back and forth in his inebriation, laboriously keeping his balance. Since he would have fallen at the first step, he did not dare move, yet he displayed a pitiful exuberance, buttonholing everyone who came up to him, jabbering, winking, sniggering, lifting a wrinkled, ringed finger as a part of some fatuous teasing, and licking the corners of his mouth with the tip of his tongue in a revoltingly suggestive manner. Aschenbach watched him with a frown, and once more a feeling of numbness came over him, as if the world were moving ever so slightly yet intractably towards a strange and grotesque warping […]. (3.10)

    In this passage, the narrator really applies him or herself to depicting this guy's "revoltingly suggestive" antics. This implies that these expressions of lust are gross because the person making them is too old to be sexually attractive. But this guy also foreshadows.  Aschenbach's own fate. Are the two characters really equated, or does Aschenbach hold on to some of his dignity?

    Hence beauty is the path the man of feeling takes to the spiritual, though merely the path, dear young Phaedrus, a means and no more…And then he made his most astute pronouncement, the crafty wooer, namely, that the lover is more divine than the beloved, because the god dwells in the former, not the latter, which is perhaps the most delicate, most derisive thought ever thought by man and the source of all the roguery and deep-seated lust in longing. (4.9)

    Here is the first time Aschenbach thinks about Socrates and Phaedrus, two characters from ancient Greek philosophy that play an important role in Chapter 5. This is where the narrator introduces the topic of beauty as a "path" to spiritual knowledge, but one that also leads to lust and the "abyss" of sexual desire. What does it mean to say that the "lover is more divine than the beloved"? Does this have to do with Aschenbach's role as the artist who is inspired by Tadzio's beauty?

    There is nothing more curious or delicate than a relationship between people who know each other only by sight, who encounter and observe each other daily—nay, hourly—yet are constrained by convention or personal caprice to keep up the pretense of being strangers, indifferent, avoiding a nod or word. There is a feeling of malaise and overwrought curiosity, the hysteria of an unsatisfied, unnaturally stifled need for mutual knowledge and communication, and above all a sort of strained esteem. For a man loves and respects his fellow man only insofar as he is unable to assess him, and longing is a product of insufficient knowledge. (4.16)

    The narrator's not just talking about those awkward elevator moments. The narrator is talking about the relationship between Tadzio and Aschenbach as one that depends on the visual, allowing them to remain strangers and giving Aschenbach a sense of being in a secret affair. "Longing," the narrator writes, "is a product of insufficient knowledge." Does this imply that vision and the imagination can fan the "flames" of lust in part because they blind us to the true reality of other people?

    For passion, like crime, is antithetical to the smooth operation and prosperity of day-to-day existence, and can only welcome every loosening of the fabric of society, every upheaval and disaster in the world, since it can vaguely hope to profit thereby. And so Aschenbach felt a morose satisfaction at the officially concealed goings-on in the dirty alleyways of Venice, that nasty secret which had merged with his own innermost secret and which he, too, was so intent on keeping […]. (5.5)

    Talk about a romantic getaway: Death in Venice suggests that Venice, with its romantic exterior, which barely conceals its seedy characters and "dirty alleyways," is the perfect backdrop for Aschenbach's illicit passion. Venice's "nasty secret"—the cholera epidemic that everyone's trying to cover up—is aligned here with Aschenbach's own secret love for Tadzio.

    Yet it cannot be said he was suffering: he was drunk in both head and heart, and his steps followed the dictates of the demon whose delight it is to trample human reason and dignity underfoot. (5.7)

    We might wonder why Aschenbach does all the stuff he does. Maybe he's just losing his mind? Well, Death in Venice doesn't give a clear answer to that one, but the story does give us a lot of passages, like this one, that delight in keeping things ambiguous. As he dances according to the "dictates of the demon," we're left to wonder just what motivates him—insanity, despair, or just plain ol' lust.

    Thus the addled traveler could no longer think or care about anything but pursuing unrelentingly the object that had so inflamed him, dreaming of him in his absence, and, as is the lover's wont, speaking tender words to his mere shadow. Loneliness, the foreign environment, and the joy of a belated and profound exhilaration prompted him, persuaded him to indulge without shame or remorse in the most distasteful behavior, as when returning from Venice late one evening he had paused at the beautiful boy's door on the second floor of the hotel and pressed his forehead against the hinge in drunken rapture, unable to tear himself away even at the risk of being discovered and caught. (5.10)

    Ah, love. And lust. This is another example of the way the narrator portrays, in little descriptive vignettes, Aschenbach's total infatuation with Tadzio. The important moment here is the transition from Aschenbach's secret observations of Tadzio at play to his increasingly bold moves to keep tabs on the boy's every move, "even at the risk of being discovered and caught."

    A life of self-domination, of "despites," a grim, dogged, abstemious life he had shaped into the emblem of a frail heroism for the times—might he not call it manly, might he not call it brave? Besides, he had the feeling that the eros which had taken possession of him was in a way singularly appropriate and suited to such a life. Had it not been held in particular esteem amongst the bravest of nations? Indeed, was it not said to have flourished in their cities as a consequence of bravery? Countless warrior heroes in older times had willingly borne its yoke, for no action imposed by a god could be deemed humiliating, and actions that might otherwise have been condemned as signs of cowardice—genuflections, oaths, importunate supplications, and servile behavior—such actions were accounted no shame to a lover but rather earned him praise. (5.11)

    We just can't talk about lust in Death in Venice without mentioning the particular form it takes in the novella—that of an older man for a young boy. As we discuss in "Symbols," relationships between men and boys, called pederasty, was culturally acceptable and even prized in ancient Greece. In part, Aschenbach's lust for Tadzio is projected onto that ancient screen. It's also another example of the way Aschenbach's lust looks for different, imaginary, or past worlds in which to live out its fantasies.

    But the dreamer was now with them, within them: he belonged to the stranger god. Yes, they were now his own self as they hurled themselves upon the animals, lacerating them, slaughtering them, devouring gobbets of steaming flesh, as they dropped to the trampled mossy ground for unbridled coupling, an offering to the god. And his soul savored the debauchery and delirium of doom. (5.37)

    Here's a tasty morsel from Aschenbach's stranger god dream in Chapter 5. As we discuss in "Symbols," this dreams has everything to do with the transformation of Aschenbach's infatuation with Tadzio from one that ostensibly has to do with the boy's beauty into one that is primal lust. The vision of the "stranger god's" revelers devouring raw flesh and engaging in "unbridled coupling" spares no expense in giving us the nitty-gritty of that transformation.

  • Foreignness and "The Other"

    He was clearly not of Bavarian stock and, if nothing else, the broad, straight-brimmed bast hat covering his head lent him a distinctly foreign, exotic air. He did, however, have the customary knapsack strapped to his shoulders, wore a yellowish belted suit of what appeared to be loden […] (1.4)

    Right from the outset, when Aschenbach runs across this fellow in his local graveyard, the figure of the foreign-seeming "other" takes center stage. It's important to remember that this character is not necessarily a foreigner—his dress and appearance gives him "a distinctly foreign, exotic air." When we talk about the "other" in Death in Venice, usually we're talking about some strange otherness that emerges within the familiar.

    It was wanderlust, pure and simple, yet it had come upon him like a seizure and grown into a passion—no, more, an hallucination. His desire sprouted eyes, his imagination, as yet unstilled from its morning labors, conjured for the earth's manifold wonders and horrors in his attempt to visualize them: he saw. He saw a landscape, a tropical quagmire beneath a steamy sky—sultry, luxuriant, and monstrous—a kind of primordial wilderness of islands, marshes, and alluvial channels; saw hairy palm shafts thrusting upward, near and far, from rank clusters of bracken, from beds of thick, swollen and bizarrely burgeoning flora; saw fantastically malformed trees plunge their roots through the air into the soil, into stagnant, shadow-green, looking-glass waters, where, amidst milk-white flowers bobbing like bowls, outlandish stoop-shouldered birds with misshapen beaks stood stock-still in the shallows, peering off to one side; saw the eyes of a crouching tiger gleam out of the knotty canes of a bamboo thicket—and felt his heart pound with terror and an enigmatic craving. (1.6)

    Aschenbach's desire to see exotic places, described here in colorful terms as a vision of "primordial wilderness," is just a precursor to his discovery of his erotic desires for Tadzio. Is it a real wilderness that Aschenbach longs for, or is it instead an imaginary space within himself, a strangeness and "wildness" that he longs to unleash?

    Gustav von Aschenbach was born in L., a county town in the province of Silesia, the son of a senior official in the judiciary. His forebears had been officers, judges, and civil servants, men who led disciplined, decently austere lives serving king and state. A certain inner spirituality had manifested itself in the person of the only clergy man amongst them, and a strain of more impetuous, sensual blood had found its way into the family in the previous generation through the writer's mother, the daughter of a Bohemian bandmaster. She was the source of the foreign racial features in his appearance. It was the union of the father's sober, conscientious nature with the darker, more fiery impulses of the mother that engendered the artist—and this particular artist. (2.1)

    Aschenbach doesn't just encounter "others"—he is one himself. It's easy to overlook this passage, where Aschenbach's background is described as a combination of the "inner spirituality" of his father, descended from a long line of clergymen and civil servants, and the "fiery impulses" of his Bohemian (in this case, probably Czech) mother. In fact, this passage goes so far to suggest that this mixing of backgrounds is what "engendered the artist."

    Where did one go when one wished to travel overnight to a unique, fairy-tale-like location? Why, that was obvious. What was he doing here? He had come to the wrong place. That is where he should have gone. He lost no time in announcing his departure. A week and a half after his arrival on the island a swift motorboat bore him and his luggage across the misty morning water back to the naval base and he disembarked only to mount a gangplank leading to the damp deck of a steamer about to weigh anchor for Venice. (3.2)

    Ah, Venice. There's just no other place like it. Even if it's not the "primordial wilderness" Aschenbach first dreams of, Venice is always "other," with a strange air of exotic foreignness, and yet it's located in familiar (think: European) surroundings. This passage demonstrates the tourist's logic: A trip to Venice promises a visit to a "fairy-tale-like location," but one that can be reached overnight. (A quick trip in the early 20th century.)

    Once Aschenbach had had a closer look, however, he realized with something akin to horror that the man was no youth. He was old, there was no doubting it: he had wrinkles around his eyes and mouth; the matt crimson of his cheeks was rouge; the brown hair beneath the straw hat with its colorful band—a toupee; the neck—scrawny, emaciated; the stuck-on mustache and imperial on his chin—dyed; the full complement of yellow teeth—a cheap denture; and the hands, with signet rings on both forefingers, those of an old man. A shudder ran through Aschenbach as he watched him and his interplay with his friends. Did they not know, could they not see that he was old, that he had no right to be wearing their foppish, gaudy clothes, no right to be carrying on as if he were one of them? They seemed to be used to him and take him for granted, tolerating his presence and treating him as an equal, returning his pokes in the ribs without malice. How could they? Aschenbach laid his hand on his forehead and shut his eyes: they felt hot for want of sleep. He had the impression that something was not quite normal, that a dreamlike disaffection, a warping of the world into something alien was about to take hold […] (3.4)

    One of the most memorable "others" Aschenbach comes across is the old man on the boat to Venice, who's masquerading as a young guy. Aschenbach is horrified and disoriented when he realizes the truth about the man, but it's hard not to notice the foreshadowing—this "other" is a lot like the person Aschenbach himself will become, when he, infatuated with the youthful Tadzio, likewise dresses in gaudy clothes and puts on make-up. Sometimes what's perceived as the "other" turns out to be a reflection of the self. Bummer, Aschenbach.

    Solitude begets originality, bold and disconcerting beauty, poetry. But solitude can also beget perversity, disparity, the absurd and the forbidden. Accordingly, the figures encountered on the journey—the repulsive old fop with his "sweetheart" drivel, the outlaw gondolier defrauded of his fee—still rankled in the traveler's mind. Though neither difficult to explain rationally nor even thought-provoking, they were utterly outlandish—or so he found them—and unsettling precisely because of this paradox. (3.37)

    Finding personal time is one of the reasons people still take vacations. Well, consider Death in Venice a cautionary tale. Solitude can inspire us, but it can also lead us to discover strange, "absurd," and "outlandish" things within ourselves, things we don't want to believe are true about ourselves. Makes that cheesy tee-shirt your Grandma got you on her last trip look pretty good in comparison…

    Such was Venice, the wheedling, shady beauty, a city half fairy tale, half tourist trap, in whose foul air the arts had once flourished luxuriantly and which had inspired musicians with undulating, lullingly licentious harmonies. The adventurer felt his eyes drinking in its voluptuousness, his ears being wooed by its melodies; he recalled, too, that the city was diseased and as concealing it out of cupidity, and the look with which he peered out after the gondola floating ahead of him grew more wanton. (5.9)

    Death in Venice is not exactly what you'd call a glowing endorsement of Venice. Instead of the classic, romantic European vacation destination, Venice is portrayed as "licentious" and "diseased," "half fairy tale, half tourist trap," with the power both to attract and repel. The foreignness of Venice is not the kind you enjoy in the usual sense; it's the kind that never stops being a little unsettling and unpredictable.

    His build frail, his face gaunt and emaciated, a shabby felt hat pushed back over his neck and a shock of red hair gushing out from under the brim, he stood there on the gravel, apart from the others, in a pose of brazen bravado and, still strumming the strings, hurled his quips up to the terrace in a vigorous parlando, the veins bulging in his forehead from the strain. He seemed less the Venetian type than of the race of Neapolitan comedians: half pimp, half performer, brutal and brash, dangerous and entertaining. The lyrics of the song were merely silly, but in his rendition—what with the facial expressions and body movements he used, his suggestive winks, and the way he licked the corner of his mouth lasciviously—they became ambiguous, vaguely obscene. Protruding from the soft collar of his open shirt, which clashed with his otherwise formal attire, was a scrawny neck with a conspicuously large and naked-looking Adam's apple. His pallid snub-nosed face, its beardless features giving no indication of his age, seemed lined with grimaces and vice, and the two furrows stretching defiantly, imperiously, almost savagely between his reddish brows contrasted oddly with the grin on his mobile mouth. What made the solitary traveler focus all his attention on him, however, was the realization that the suspicious character seemed to bring his own suspicious atmosphere with him: each time the refrain recurred, the singer set off on a grotesque march, making faces and waving, his path taking him directly under Aschenbach's seat, and each time he made his round a strong smell of carbolic acid wafted its way up to the terrace from his clothes and body. (5.20)

    Remember this guy? The minstrel singer brings together a number of elements of "otherness" present in the other "others" Aschenbach meets. This gives us the sense that Aschenbach isn't just encountering individual strangers who are off-putting in their own ways, but really a single stranger who is appearing in different forms—and he is ultimately who Aschenbach imagines as the "stranger god," the symbol of his own erotic desire.

    For several years now Indian cholera had displayed a growing tendency to spread and migrate. Emanating from the humid marches of the Ganges Delta, rising with the mephitic exhalations of that lush, uninhabitable, primordial island jungle shunned by man, where tigers crouch in bamboo thickets, the epidemic had long rage with unwonted virulence through Hindustan, then moved eastward to China, westward to Afghanistan and Persia, and, following the main caravan routes, borne its horrors as far as Astrakhan and even Moscow. But while Europe quaked at the thought of the specter invading from there by land, it had been transported by sea in the ships of Syrian merchants and shown up in several Mediterranean ports simultaneously […] Corruption in high places together with the prevailing insecurity and the state of emergency into which death stalking the streets had plunged the city led to a certain degeneracy among the lower classes, the encouragement of dark, antisocial impulses that made itself felt in self-indulgence, debauchery, and growing criminality. There was an unusually high number of drunkards abroad in the evening: vicious bands of rabble were said to make the streets unsafe at night; muggings were not uncommon and even murders, for it had been shown that on two occasions people who had allegedly fallen victim to the epidemic had in fact been done in, poisoned, by their relatives; and prostitution now assumed blatant and dissolute forms hitherto unknown here, at home only in the south of the country and the Orient. (5.32)

    Let's talk about cholera. This isn't just any disease, but as this passage tells us, it's a disease that is marked as something inherently foreign. With its origins in the "primordial island jungle" of India, this description of cholera recalls Aschenbach's initial longing to travel to a "primordial wilderness" (1.6), hammering home the idea that Aschenbach becomes both literally and metaphorically infected with his dangerous desire for exotic "otherness."

    But the dreamer was now with them, within them: he belonged to the stranger god. Yes, they were now his own self as they hurled themselves upon the animals, lacerating them, slaughtering them, devouring gobbets of steaming flesh, as they dropped to the trampled mossy ground for unbridled coupling, an offering to the god. And his soul savored the debauchery and delirium of doom. (5.37)

    Check out the way Aschenbach himself plays a role in the stranger god dream, becoming one of the revelers and realizing that "he belonged to the stranger god." Yep, this is one of the final examples of the way Aschenbach contains within himself the strange "otherness" that he keeps imagining and finding in those he encounters.

  • Literature and Writing

    Overwrought from the difficult and dangerous labors of the late morning hours, labors demanding the utmost caution, prudence, tenacity, and precision of will, the writer had even after the midday meal been unable to halt the momentum of the inner mechanism—the motus animi continuus in which, according to Cicero, eloquence resides—and find the refreshing sleep that the growing wear and tear upon his forces had made a daily necessity. And so, shortly after tea he had sought the outdoors in the hope that open air and exercise might revive him and help him to enjoy a fruitful evening. (1.1)

    In the very first paragraph of Death in Venice, we read this description of Aschenbach as a writer whose "labors" require "caution, prudence, tenacity, and precision of will." As we discuss in the "Characters" section, this description comes with an ironic edge; the way this passage goes to lengths to portray Aschenbach's writing as a heroic feat gives us the sense that he probably takes himself too seriously.

    Yet he knew only too well the source of the sudden temptation. It was an urge to flee—he fully admitted it, this yearning for freedom, release, oblivion—an urge to flee his work, the humdrum routine of a rigid, cold, passionate duty. Granted, he loved that duty and even almost loved the enervating daily struggle between his proud, tenacious, much-tested will and the growing fatigue, which no one must suspect or the finished product betray by the slightest sign of foundering or neglect. But it made sense not to go too far in the other direction, not to be so obstinate as to curb a need erupting with such virulence. (1.8)

    Let's face it: Everyone gets writer's block. It's important to keep in mind that Aschenbach's desire to see exotic places only arises because he's hit a rough spot in his writing. The narrator describes his longing to travel as "an urge to flee" his writer's block.

    At forty, at fifty, and even when younger, at an age when others dissipate their talents, wax rhapsodic, or blissfully defer their grand projects, he would start his day early by dashing cold water over his chest and back; then, having set a pair of tall wax candles in silver holders at the head of his manuscript, he would spend two or three fervent, conscientious hours offering up to art the strength he had garnered in sleep. It was a forgivable error—indeed, it betokened a victory for his moral stance—that the uninitiated should take the world of his Maya or the epic background against which Frederick's feats unfolded as the product of prodigious strength and unending stamina, but in fact they grew out of daily increments of hundreds upon hundreds of bits of inspiration, and the only reason they were so perfect—overall and in every detail—was that their creator had held out for years under the strain of a single work with a fortitude and tenacity analogous to those Frederick had used to conquer his native province, and that he had devoted only his most vibrant and vital hours to its composition. (2.5)

    Now that's what we call discipline. In this passage, the narrator shows us Aschenbach as an uncompromising artist whose success is based not in a heroic feat of "prodigious strength," but rather in a commitment to "daily increments" of unending labor. Here, we have the quintessential depiction of Aschenbach as a disciplined writer, who sees writing as a kind of holy duty—well, we know where that ends up.

    What one saw when one looked into the world as narrated by Aschenbach was elegant self-possession concealing inner dissolution and biological decay from the eyes of the world until the eleventh hour; a sallow, sensually destitute ugliness capable of fanning its smoldering lust into a pure flame, indeed, of rising to sovereignty in the realm of beauty; pallid impotence probing the incandescent depths of the mind for the strength to cast an entire supercilious people at the foot of the Cross, at their feet; an obliging manner in the empty, punctilious service of form; the life, false and dangerous, and the swiftly enervating desires and art of the born deceiver. Observing all this and much more of a like nature, one might well wonder whether the only possible heroism was the heroism of the weak. Yet what heroism was more at one with the times? (2.7)

    The narrator takes us into the fictional world created by Aschenbach in order to make a comment on Aschenbach's own fate. How's that for a clever trick? The image of "elegant self-possession concealing inner dissolution and biological decay" sounds like a fitting summary of Aschenbach in Death and Venice, suggesting that writers often write themselves in their own characters.

    "I shall stay, then," Aschenbach thought. "What better place could there be?" And folding his hands in his lap, he let his eyes run over the sea's great expanse and set his gaze adrift till it blurred and broke in the monotonous mist of barren space. He loved the sea and for deep-seated reasons: the hardworking artist's need for repose, the desire to take shelter from the demanding diversity of phenomena in the bosom of boundless simplicity, a propensity—proscribed and diametrically opposed to his mission in life and for that very reason seductive—a propensity for the unarticulated, the immoderate, the eternal, for nothingness. To repose in perfection is the desire of all those who strive for excellence, and is not nothingness a form of perfection? (3.54)

    Here's a classic turning point: When Aschenbach decides to stay in Venice, after an attempt to leave, we see him being pulled in by the "seductive" possibility of "the unarticulated, the immoderate, the eternal, […] nothingness," a.k.a. the opposite of everything he cares about: writing (articulation) and disciplined work to produce something.

    What discipline, what precision of thought was conveyed by that tall, youthfully perfect physique! Yet the austere and pure will laboring in obscurity to bring the godlike statue to light—was it not known to him, familiar to him as an artist? Was it not at work in him when, chiseling with sober passion at the marble block of language, he released the slender form he had beheld in his mind and world present to the world as an effigy and mirror of spiritual beauty? (4.7)

    Sounds like someone has God issues… What Aschenbach first admires in Tadzio is not so much a human being, but rather the "precision of thought" he sees revealed in the boy's "perfect physique." He admires and identifies with the "austere and pure will" that has produced Tadzio. Not surprisingly, Aschenbach will not long after this imagine Socrates telling Phaedrus that "the lover is more divine than the beloved"—the lover, in this case, Aschenbach, loves and sees himself in the divine force that has created the beloved (4.9). Maybe that's why he calls Tadzio a "mirror."

    Nothing gladdens a writer more than a thought that can become pure feeling and a feeling that can become pure thought. Just such a pulsating thought, just such a precise feeling was then in the possession and service of the solitary traveler: nature trembles with bliss when the mind bows in homage to beauty. He suddenly desired to write. Eros, we are told, loves indolence, and for indolence was he created. But as this point in his crisis the stricken man was aroused to production. The stimulus scarcely mattered. A query, a challenge to make one's views known on a certain major, burning issue of taste and culture had gone out to eh intellectual world and caught up with him on his travels. It was something he was familiar with, something he knew from experience, and the desire to make it shine in the light of his words was suddenly irresistible. (4.10)

    If Aschenbach travels to escape his writer's block, then Tadzio is his cure. Here, "Eros," the stirring of Aschenbach's erotic feelings for Tadzio, is put in the position of a source of inspiration. The desire to make his idea "shine in the light of his words" is aligned here with a sexual desire—Aschenbach's longing for Tadzio as a symbol of pure beauty.

    What is more, he longed to work in Tadzio's presence, to model his writing on the boy's physique, to let his style follow the lines of that body, which he saw as godlike, and bear it beauty to the realm of the intellect, as the eagle had once borne the Trojan shepherd to the ether. Never had he experienced the pleasure of the word to be sweeter, never had he known with such certitude that Eros is in the word than during those dangerously delightful hours when, seated at his rough table under the awning, in full view of his idol, the music of his voice in his ears, he formulated that little essay—a page and a half of sublime prose based on Tadzio's beauty—the purity, nobility, and quivering emotion tension of which would soon win the admiration of many. (4.10)

    Tadzio not only inspires Aschenbach to write; Aschenbach does write, and the "page and a half" he writes about Tadzio's beauty "would soon win the admiration of many." At this point in Death in Venice, Aschenbach reaches the high point of his creative potential, when he realizes that "Eros is in the word"—the idea that creativity has something to do with eroticism. But "Eros" can also be dangerous…

    It is surely as well that the world knows only a beautiful work itself and not its origins, the conditions under which it comes into being, for if people had knowledge of the sources from which the artist derives his inspiration they would oftentimes be confused and alarmed and thus vitiate the effects the artist had achieved. How strange those hours were! How oddly enervating the effort! How curiously fruitful the intercourse of mind with body! When Aschenbach put away his work and quit the beach, he felt exhausted and, yes, spent, as if his conscience were reproaching him after a debauch. (4.10)

    When it comes to writing, this passage informs us, some things are better left unsaid. People prefer to imagine writing as a task that has nothing to do with illicit passion. But, as it turns out, that's just what Death and Venice goes and shows us. Death in Venice is kind of like a behind-the-scenes version of literature.

    There he sat, the master, the eminently dignified artist, the author of "A Wretched Figure," who had rejected bohemian excess and the murky depths in a form of exemplary purity, who had renounced all sympathy for the abyss and reprehended the reprehensible, climbed the heights, and, having transcended his erudition and outgrown all irony, accepted the obligations that come with mass approbation, a man whose fame was official, whose name had been made noble, and whose style schoolboys were exhorted to emulate—there he sat, his eyes closed, with only an occasional, rapidly disappearing sidelong glance, scornful and sheepish, slipping out from under them and a few isolated words issuing from his slack, cosmetically embellished lips, the result of the curious dream logic of his half-slumbering brain. (5.50)

    How's that for irony? Aschenbach, who's famous for writing a story called "A Wretched Figure," himself ends his life in a pretty wretched position. Even though he has attained literary greatness through discipline and by renouncing "sympathy for the abyss" and by having "outgrown all irony," he—ironically, of course—ends up giving it all away for Tadzio, becoming exactly the kind of character that he has struggled to portray in his own writing.

  • Mortality

    Preoccupied with the tasks imposed upon him by his ego and the European psyche, overburdened by the obligation to produce, averse to diversion, and no lover of the external world and its variety, he was quite content with the view of the earth's surface that anyone can gain without stirring far from home, and never so much as tempted to venture beyond Europe. Especially now that his life was on the decline and his fear of failing to achieve his artistic goals—the concern that his time might run out before he had accomplished what he needed to accomplish and given fully of himself—could no longer be dismissed as a caprice, he had confined his external existence almost exclusively to the beautiful city that had become his home and the rustic cottage he had built for himself in the mountains and where he spent the rainy summers. (1.7)

    Does Aschenbach have a midlife crisis or what? One of Aschenbach's motivations for wanting to escape to Venice is his experience of writers' block. But there's more to it than that, and this passage makes clear that Aschenbach's change, from never even feeling "tempted to venture beyond Europe" to longing for the exotic, has something to do with the realization of his own mortality—his fear, "that his life was on the decline and his fear of failing to achieve his artistic goals." What else is writer's block than the death of writing?

    There was nothing stirring behind the stonemasons' fences, where crosses, headstones, and monuments for sale formed a second, uninhabited graveyard, and the mortuary's Byzantine structure opposite stood silent in the glow of the waning day. Its façade, decorated with Greek crosses and brightly hued hieratic patterns, also displayed a selection of symmetrically arranged gilt-lettered inscriptions concerning the afterlife, such as "They Enter into the Dwelling Place of the Lord" or May the Light Everlasting Shine upon Them," and reading the formulas, letting his mind's eye lose itself in the mysticism emanating from them, served to distract the waiting man for several minutes until, resurfacing from his reveries, he noticed a figure in the portico above the two apocalyptic beasts guarding the staircase, and something slight out of the ordinary in the figure's appearance gave his thoughts an entirely new turn. (1.3)

    Remember this guy Aschenbach meets in the graveyard? Well, suffice it to say that encountering this strange-looking fellow is what inspires Aschenbach to travel. Of course, it's also significant that he meets this guy in a graveyard, with "Greek crosses" (foreshadowing later references to ancient Greece) and various Christian inscriptions about death. Mortality is there from the very beginning.

    His motto was Durchhalten, "Persevere," and he regarded his Frederick-the-Great novel as nothing short of the apotheosis of this command, which he considered the essence of a cardinal virtue: action in the face of suffering. Then, too, he ardently desired to live to old age, for he had always believed that the only artistic gift that can be called truly great, all-encompassing, and, yes, truly praiseworthy is one that has been vouchsafed productivity at all stages of human existence. (2.4)

    When it comes to writing, we already know that Aschenbach is one tough cookie. At the beginning of Death in Venice, his life is defined by a philosophy of perseverance, which informs his understanding of writing as a kind of heroic duty. But even this "action in the face of suffering" has something to do with a fear of death—his "ardent desire to live to old age" seems to mask his fear of losing his artistic productivity.

    Once Aschenbach had had a closer look, however, he realized with something akin to horror that the man was no youth. He was old, there was no doubting it: he had wrinkles around his eyes and mouth; the matt crimson of his cheeks was rouge; the brown hair beneath the straw hat with its colorful band—a toupee; the neck—scrawny, emaciated; the stuck-on mustache and imperial on his chin—dyed; the full complement of yellow teeth—a cheap denture; and the hands, with signet rings on both forefingers, those of an old man. A shudder ran through Aschenbach as he watched him and his interplay with his friends. Did they not know, could they not see that he was old, that he had no right to be wearing their foppish, gaudy clothes, no right to be carrying on as if he were one of them? (3.4)

    What's important here is the way the description of this character's old age draws attention to his mortality, his aging body that has "no right" to be parading about in a young man's outfit. In this way, too, this guy foreshadows Aschenbach's own fate, making us wonder what Aschenbach's infatuation with Tadzio has to do with holding onto youth and fearing death.

    He drooled, he squinted, he licked the corners of his mouth, and the dyed imperial on his old man's chin jutted into the air. "Our compliments," he babbled on, placing two fingers to his lips, "to your sweetheart, your sweet, your most beautiful sweetheart…" And suddenly the upper denture slipped out of his jaw over the lover lip. Aschenbach managed to escape. "Your sweetheart, your lovely sweetheart," came the cooing, hollow, garbled words behind him as he made his way down the gangplank, clutching the rope railing. (3.12)

    This guy is just… yuck. Why is he here? Well, Aschenbach wonders the same thing, but as it turns out, this old guy on the boat to Venice reminds us of what Aschenbach himself will become. In his old age, sexuality—and this guy seems to be making a sexual advance of some sort—only becomes a reminder of mortality, symbolized here by the dentures that fall out of the man's mouth as he tries to give his "compliments" to Aschenbach's "sweetheart."

    He had noticed, however, that Tadzio's teeth were less than attractive: a bit jagged and pale, lacking the gleam of health, and with that brittle, transparent quality sometimes found in anemic. He is very frail, he is sickly, thought Aschenbach. He'll probably not live long. And he made no attempt to account for why he felt satisfied or consoled at the thought. (3.62)

    Tadzio's beauty is made all the more fleeting because it comes with signs of death. Aschenbach notices early on that Tadzio appears sick, with bad-looking teeth (reminding us of the dentures worn by the old man on the boat), and feels consoled. Is this because he doesn't want Tadzio to grow older, or, for Aschenbach, does beauty have some other connection to death?

    The recipient of this smile hurried off with it as if it were a fatal gift. He was so shaken that he felt compelled to flee the light of the terrace and front garden and hastily sought the obscurity of the rear grounds. […]Leaning back, arms dangling, overwhelmed and shuddering repeatedly, he whispered the standard formula of longing—impossible here, absurd, perverse, ridiculous and sacred nonetheless, yes, still venerable even here: "I love you!" (4.20)

    Let's talk about Tadzio's "fatal gift." With a single smile, seeming to acknowledge Aschenbach's attention, Aschenbach is thrown into quite a frenzy, which ends with him admitting to himself that he loves Tadzio. In this case, the possibility of Tadzio reciprocating means Aschenbach acknowledges that his desires for Tadzio are sexual, and not just an artist's appreciation for his beautiful form. What might that realization have to do with mortality?

    Such was Venice, the wheedling, shady beauty, a city half fairy tale, half tourist trap, in whose foul air the arts had once flourished luxuriantly and which had inspired musicians with undulating, lullingly licentious harmonies. The adventurer felt his eyes drinking in its voluptuousness, his ears being wooed by its melodies; he recalled, too, that the city was diseased and as concealing it out of cupidity, and the look with which he peered out after the gondola floating ahead of him grew more wanton. (5.9)

    Death in Venice isn't the best travel guide. In this novella, the city embodies Aschenbach's own decline, appearing on the one hand as a symbol of European civilization, and on the other becoming diseased and trying to conceal it. The city, like Aschenbach, is portrayed as a dying entity.

    In the general commotion and confusion he ventured a glance in Tadzio's direction and, as he did so, noticed that when returning the glance the boy was equally grave, as if he were modeling his conduct and facial expression on Aschenbach's and the general mood had no hold upon him because Aschenbach remained aloof from it. There was something at once disarming and overwhelming in this telling, childlike obedience; it was all the elderly man could do to keep from burying his face in his hands. He also had the feeling that Tadzio's tendency to pull himself up and take deep breaths was the sign of a constricted chest. "He is sickly and has probably not long to live," he thought with the objectivity that strangely enough breaks free on occasion from intoxication and longing, and his heart swelled with pure concern and a concomitant profligate satisfaction. (5.28)

    Here, we get another reference to Tadzio's mortality. It's interesting to not that Aschenbach's observation of Tadzio's mortality becomes a moment of "objectivity" that "breaks free […] from intoxication." Aschenbach can be objective when it comes to thinking about Tadzio's death, but is it maybe his own death that he's thinking about instead?

    There had been an hourglass in his parents' house many years before, and all at once he could see the fragile yet momentous little device as if it were standing before him. The rust-colored sand would run soundless and fine through the narrow glass neck, and when the upper bulb was nearly empty a small raging whirlpool would form there.

    Sometimes we all need a good, old-fashioned metaphor. This image of Aschenbach's parents' hourglass, with the sand that runs round and round before forming a "small raging whirlpool" at the end, perfectly captures Aschenbach's own life: stoic discipline that continues on and on, before, at the end of it all, a "raging" passion takes it all down.