My comparative literature class was assigned a reading of Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, an early 20th-century novelist known for his exploration of the relationship between art and real life. Death in Venice is a novella that depicts a writer, Gustav von Aschenbach, who has always worked under strict rational discipline but whose suffering from a repression of his passionate and spontaneous nature — his purely artistic side — finally comes to a head. The novella is rich in analogies, symbols, and mythological references.
Death in Venice invokes the classic conflict between the ideals of two Greek gods, Apollo on the side of reason and Dionysus on the side of passion. In the end, Aschenbach dies in Venice because he was unable to balance these conflicting principles in his life: he was governed strictly by reason and the artistic value of his work suffered because of it, but he was reminded of the passionate, artistic side of life in a step-by-step process that brought him to Venice where his passions fully took over and changed his personality.
I talked to my classmate R.W. about the story, and we began to fully understand how Mann’s artfully crafted web of ideas reminded us of our lives and the world we live in.
Adrian Pritchett: When Aschenbach sees the tourist or the traveler at the church, [did it remind you of] a sight that made you desire travel or to take drastic action in the manner that Aschenbach was inspired to take a special vacation?
RW: I don’t think travel necessarily. I think that drastic action in a lot of cases is the only way to come about with a change in life. When you’re mired in the day-to-day and dull activities of life, anything that you see that’s somewhat sublime, or any reminder of what you’re missing — Once you’ve made a decision, you’re going down a path and you can’t go back, and when you’re reminded of what you’re missing, you try to regain that and try to backtrack.
AP: Have you yourself had sudden inspirations like that that were incongruous to your mood?
RW: Yeah, I mean, that’s a universal thing. Even if you hear a song on the radio, it can take you back in time ... and you can remember decisions that you could have made differently.
AP: And could even make you take action?
RW: Right, right. I’m kind of bad about this, but if I happen to hear a particular song, I might call an ex-girlfriend to check on her because I wonder whatever happened there. So, yeah, that’s a universal thing.
AP: Aschenbach saw an old man that did his best to appear young in manner and in dress. Did you ever become something that at one time you would have hated just as Aschenback became some sort of fop himself?
RW: Oh yeah. Again, I think that’s a universal characteristic. We all dislike things about ourselves and do things that we don’t understand and don’t normally do and we don’t approve of.
AP: Have you turned around and started doing something that you would not have approved of in the past?
RW: Yeah. ... When I was fifteen and I was in high school and I was doing relativism, it was my thing, and I would befuddle teachers and students with it, and it wasn’t anything I had read — I had just stumbled upon it. I thought that absolute truth and anything absolute, basically, was preposterous and couldn’t be reached. And then as I grew and I recognized more and more about the world, I recognized I kept coming back to the same problems and spinning in a circle, because based upon the idea that if the world was a creation of my mind, then there can’t be anything true, yet things were happening outside of my mind. It put me in this position where I had to repudiate everything that I had been preaching to teachers and students, and one day I just kind of woke up and ... there has to be some sort of truth or else I’m not right and I can’t even say anything to these people. And so I immediately had to back off and remove those inclinations and sort through the world anew. So, yeah, I think that we all backtrack and we all change. ... Our perception of things can be altered by whatever triggers the response in the brain.
AP: So you had new and continued experiences that changed your view of the world?
RW: The view of the world always changes. It’s constantly changing. If it stays the same then you’re probably a vegetable.
AP: Interesting point. ... Talking about perceptions and experiencing problems, in Death in Venice, the city at the governmental level and all that tried to cover up this epidemic that was sprouting up in the city and other Mediterranean cities, and this was analogous to Aschenbach’s growing passions that he tried to mask with his reasonable, courteous actions — [for example] he was following Tadzio but kept his distance respectfully — so he was covering up part of himself. Does that remind you of anything you can relate to, for yourself or for just general cover-ups in society?
RW: Of course. [For] governments, since the time of Industrialism, it’s a common thing to keep the majority — the bourgeois or the working class — just kind of uninformed of what’s going on outside. You know, Iraq thought they were winning the Gulf War in the 90’s. Hitler’s Germany was winning even when they were losing. It’s a propaganda you put up to prevent mass chaos, to prevent mass hysteria. In a world that’s based on economics — and on produce, produce, produce — and functioning on time schedules, and these type of things, of course there’s going to be some cover-up because they don’t want you to recognize reality in any sense. They don’t want you to recognize that you’re on this sort of treadmill, and that’s what this cover-up in Venice reminds me of. Even if you see that type of thing today — when there was anthrax sent to the Capitol to Tom Daschle, the senators came running out of Washington. They’re not going to be in the Capitol — they’re coming out of it and they’re flustered — yet when they come on TV they’re going, "It will be perfectly OK. Citizens of Washington, Baltimore, please stay calm," and then they get the hell out. It could have potentially been a disastrous thing but they’re not going to come out and be honest about it, and that’s what they’re doing in Venice [in the story]. If you have a plague on your hands, you’re not going to come out and be like, "We’re all going to die!" Because then, of course, you’d have mass hysteria and people killing each other, and you have what happens when the people of Venice in the story actually realize what’s going on when they talk about [how] there’s murder and all these things that have never happened.
AP: So that would have been even more widespread if reality had been discussed.
The reality of cover-ups engaged us for quite a while since denying reality is such a common human tendency on so many levels. I asked about our own community and then moved on to focus on that personal battleground of reason versus passion.
AP: Do you think that the powers that be in Athens, Georgia, cover things up?
RW: Honestly, I can not make an educated answer on that because I have backed out of politics entirely. ... They probably have little small rendezvous and small skeletons in the closet, but I don’t think it’s anything comparable to there’s a plague in Athens that’s killing us all. [Then, as a side note:] Although there is probably a plague in Athens, though it’s of a different sort.
AP: … Does achieving a balance in the struggle between reason and passion really require this kind of avoidance of reality, or does it require deception?
RW: I don’t think the story says that it does. I think that’s the problem with it, an avoidance of reality that throws it off balance. What’s going on in Venice is they’re avoiding reality and people are dying. You look at what’s going on in Aschenbach and he’s avoiding reality; he’s avoiding what actually his urge is from the beginning. His urges have always been these passionate things. That’s the only way he can be an artist, but he’s always kept them in check. Emre talked about the Apollonian and Dionysian, and he’s always kept the Dionysian in check with his Apollonian. But his urges have always been Dionysian. He basically is the Freudian repressed person, and they’re eventually going to come out.
AP: So would he actually achieve a balance by being truthful with the changes in himself?
RW: ... I think that is very contingent upon the person.
AP: Maybe their perception of reality is based on the balance of forces, too.
RW: Right, and I think that ... the fact he kept his passionate side, his festive side, on this leash ... made it grow up to the point that when he let go of reason, it was over. It was so built up within him that when it manifested itself, it completely consumed him. To have that balance you have to actually try to balance it in your life, in your day-to-day things. You have to go out and every now and then do things that are unexpected. I’m a very — studious, I guess — kind of person. I sit at my desk most hours of the day, but then that leaves me lopsided. And so to balance that out every now and then I’ll just randomly decide I have to get out, and I’ll go out, and then I can come back and I can do my work. There’s a kind of balance you just have to flip-flop between. I think it’s normally kind of you’re doing one extreme and then you do the other extreme, and cumulatively it combines into a balance. So I think it’s possible to do it and actually face reality. When you don’t face the reality of what your urges are telling you to do, when you completely deny yourself, then you’re putting yourself in trouble. Because you’re denying the actuality of things and denying actually who you are and you’re putting on a facade, which is what Aschenbach is doing the entire time. ... He’s concerned with his image; he’s so proud. He says he was once proud of being this kind of revolutionary intellectual, and now his proudest thing is his name. ... The image has completely consumed him. Even going on the opposite [Dionysian] side his image has consumed him. ... That’s a hideous thought to me, this old guy with dyed hair and makeup on. He’s completely consumed by what he presents to the outer world instead of trying to figure out what he needs as an individual.
AP: That was the result of being off balance.
RW: I don’t think that you can say it’s a result. I think it’s a cause and a result. It’s the chicken and the egg. I don’t think you can say which one came first. It perpetuates his condition of being off balance and it’s rooted in his condition of being off balance.
AP: So you answered my further question of why his feelings went completely opposite: because he had not acknowledged them and they grew and took over when he let go of reason. So in real life does indulging in one extreme lead to a later shift to the other extreme — between the Apollonian ways and the Dionysian ways?
RW: That again is contingent upon the individual. … Personally speaking, I would say that for me my high school years were extremely wild. I was a very, very bad kid. When I got to college and as I’ve grown up a little bit over the past couple of years, now I’m mostly the opposite extreme. I don’t go out or do anything much: I just kind of sit and work, and that’s what I enjoy doing, and that’s what I do with my life. So there has been a complete contrast.
AP: But you have said you’re aware of the need for a balance.
RW: Right, right. I still have that inclination within me, so I still go out and have my nights where I let loose.
AP: So you haven’t gone to the total Apollonian extreme.
RW: Right, but I’ve definitely had a violent shift in my lifestyle.
I was surprised by RW’s view that achieving the balance between reason and passion is an ongoing but manageable battle. Perhaps the rigor of my own daily routine has misled me into believing that individual actions themselves are "balanced" or "extreme." RW’s own life changes have shown him elements of both Dionysian and Apollonian lifestyles and necessitated that he learn to balance them. Am I on the sort of path that Aschenbach may have been following? Do I need to make an effort to see if I am masking some Dionysian tendencies in my own character?
AP: Was this story any sort of warning that Dionysius will want revenge if you ignore him? …
RW: … I don’t think it was any type of warning about that because you also have the people in Venice who are reveling in their Dionysian ways — and they’re dying! … It’s more a warning of being extreme on either side.
So it became clear to us that Apollo and Dionysus are not fighting for control of our lives; rather, they fight against each other. It seems that balance and moderation are important, and they must be pursued with an honest view of conflicting ideals and desires. Going to any sort of extreme, if Mann’s warning is correct, can lead to disaster for an individual or a society. Death in Venice is a fertile source of discussion about work and play, industry and creativity, life and art, and truth and deception.