Mann’s Homoeroticism in Venice
Reading “Death in Venice,” one might conclude any number of themes to be central to the story. One theme carried throughout the novel, homoeroticism, is nearly undeniable, even as it is somewhat masked and sanitized for the reader. Mann’s own private affinity for young males comes to life in the character of Aschenbach, although the blunt edges of homoeroticism are dulled for his, then, unaccepting audience.
Through his diaries written after he penned “Death in Venice,” Thomas Mann disclosed many private thoughts concerning not only his writing, but his private life as a gay man. In an essay written for the Germanic Review entitled, “Thomas Mann and Homoeroticism”, Ignace Feuerlicht reviews several diary entries of Thomas Mann describing his feelings about several young men, and what he believed to be the true definition of “homosexual” (92). While one might believe the definition of “homosexual” to be fairly finite, for Mann homosexuality “had very little to do with nature, and much more to do with intellect” (92). Feuerlicht goes on to explain that Mann believed that an older man being attracted to the beauty of a young man, there is “nothing unnatural, but rather a great deal educational meaning and lofty humanity” (92). This might explain, in part, why Aschenbach falls under the spell of the young Tazdio. Most of society, even today, would be taken aback by an older man lusting after an underage boy, but Thomas Mann found nothing appalling in the pairing (91). He was most likely knowledgeable of the fact homosexuality, even without the aspect of pedophilia, would be harshly criticized. So, Mann was guarded in the way he used homoerotic themes.
Feuerlicht writes in his essay that while Mann speaks poetically of homoerotic love for a young man is his diaries, homoeroticism is “conspicuously presented as depraved, absurd, sick, impish, demonic, and tragic…” (93). Mann had himself met a young man for whom he had more than warm feelings, and “Death in Venice” was meant to be an ode to this fellow; however, as he knew he could not possibly publish such a work, it became a “moral fable” (93).
Not only does Mann symbolically show homoeroticism to be evil, he also misleads his audience into believing this “perversion” was happening “in a time and place where ‘such things’ were ‘beautiful’ and ‘in’’ (93). Mann achieves this shift in setting by utilizing the images of Greek mythology, based on the historical fact that the great philosophers partook openly in homosexual activity (93). Mann, then, frees himself from ownership of his own homosexual preferences, and attributes those to a mythical place in time. Feuerlict suggests that using Greek mythology as a point of reference within the story not only furthers the plot, but more so assists Mann as “a help and refuge…as the one who had that experience in real life, and as the author who had to think of the public’s reaction to that experience” ( 94).
Mann undoubtedly had a need to be aware of his audience’s reaction in prewar Germany, as all authors must remain astutely aware of the reaction to their work. While this might seem somewhat misaligned to the entire feel of the Modernist movement—a movement we often describe as “avant-garde,” and “unapologetic” to the delicate sensitivities of an establishment, the fact remained that the powers that be could have limited his ability to publish a work of art that was blatantly homoerotic. Thomas Mann’s artistic expression was then slightly limited, but he was able to smartly bypass those limiting factors and write about something he loved to describe, according to Feuerlicht, “the beauty of a boy just before puberty” (91).
Our first glimpse of Tadzio comes as Aschenbach settles into his first evening in Venice. Tadzio stands out from the group of other young men as godlike, statuesque, and beautiful to Aschenbach (312). As an onlooker, Aschenbach “felt he had never encountered such a perfection in nature or the arts” as he looked upon the boy with “honey-colored curls,” a “straight nose,” and a “graceful reserve” (312). Even the boy’s mother had recognized how special he was, and ruled him with “softness and tenderness” (313).
That particular observation of a mother’s difference in treatment with her children speaks rather loudly as to Aschenbach’s, and therefore Mann’s, own feeling toward Tadzio. The sisters of Tadzio required strict teaching and structure, while the boy was something special (313). Tadzio was then uplifted from a status he should have shared with other children his own age, the tender age Mann preferred, to ultimately become something the Greeks might have immortalized in stone.
Although Mann creates an image of a man taken by the beauty of a young boy while simultaneously grounding the scene in Greek symbolism, this scene in and of itself does not speak of lust. We are simply given a man who observes three young children, albeit the daughters are not spoken of in the same terms as the son. The narrator does not yet reveal to us the passion Aschenbach feels for Tadzio. That passion is developed later in the story.
The following morning, Aschenbach sees Tadzio once more at breakfast. The narrator describes Tadzio’s attire, pointing out the red tie, which stood out against his blue and white suit (316). This tie, as argued by Frank Bernhard, is a phallic symbol (100). The red tie is mentioned once more as Aschenbach observed Tadzio on the beach with “the red knot on his chest” apparently calling Aschenbach’s attention (319). As Aschenbach carefully watches the scene before him and Tadzio was embraced and kissed by a youth named Yashu, Aschenbach bites into “large, fully ripened strawberries,” which, according to Bernhard, are symbolic of testicles, and Aschenbach’s growing passion for Tadzio (100).
Passion becomes more noticeable as Aschenbach watches Tadzio swim. Tadzio is described as a “sweet and acrid adolescent on the verge of masculinity” (320-321). “Acric, as described in the Oxford English Dictionary, is: “bitterly pungent to the organs of taste or smell” (OED). Pairing “sweet” and “acrid” we are reminded of the very ripe strawberries in which Aschenbach had indulged. The taste of overripe fruit would, indeed, be sweet, but maybe so much so to cause one to be sick. We, then, are led to view Tadzio as an overly ripe adolescent who, while still retaining his beauty, is on the verge of losing it to the rot Mann associated with adulthood. Tadzio’s sweetness is the pungent taste that is building in, and also sickening, Aschenbach, creating an attachment to Tadzio, if only in Aschenbach’s mind.
Even as Aschenbach tried to leave Venice, he was delighted when his luggage was misdirected, allowing him to stay (326-328). It is then that Aschenbach admits he is more than slightly enamored with the youth as we are told upon his return to the Hotel des Bains, “…he realized it was Tadzio who had made it so difficult for him to leave” (328). The reader is not left to ruminate on the image of Aschenbach’s passion too long, as we are soon swept from growing desire to a Grecian scene far removed, yet similar.
Just as Mann seems to reach some pinnacle of desire in describing the intellectual/sensual connection and “…beauty…making us burn with pain and hope,” we seemingly jump from an oceanic scene of Tadzio and Aschenbach to one in Athens (333). It is the place where “Socrates taught Pahidros about desire and virtue” (334). Here we are taken to Mann’s safe haven. This is the place that allows Mann to explain that this story is an allegory, of sorts—a study of morality, rather than having connection with his own life, as the aforementioned article of Feuerlicht argued. For it is here that Mann projects Aschenbach, and thereby himself, as no more than an artist inspired by the beauty of a young boy, and he also recognizes that it is “a good thing that the world knows only the beautiful opus but not its origins…for if the people knew the sources…that knowledge would often confuse them, alarm them, and thereby destroy the effects of excellence” (335). By referencing the acceptability in Greece of what would in Mann’s time be forbidden love, Mann can then assert that he realizes this type of situation breaks cultural mores, but is only being used here for the sake of artistry. Mann further speaks of a knowledge of homoerotic love being “wrong” when he speaks of Aschenbach putting away his writing for the evening. Aschenbach is “exhausted, even shattered, and he felt his conscience lamenting as if after a debauchery” (335). Mann’s noticeably homoerotic tale is caught between two worlds. One of a man in in love with a young boy, and another of a man society will not allow the same love enjoyed by the ancients. This double consciousness seems to mirror Mann’s own personal life, as he was a man caught between his authentic self, and the persona he was forced to present to the public.
Thomas Mann purportedly had many love affairs with young men, according to Feuerlicht (89-92). Mann could not have ever been an openly gay male in his society, and so in order to cover his homosexuality, he married a woman named Katia Mann (91). With Katia, Mann fathered six children, but never felt as satisfied as he did when he was much older and had “a chance acquaintance with a teenaged boy” (91).
During 1927 and 1928, Mann reportedly had an affair with a boy who was possibly sixteen or seventeen years old whilst on an island vacation (91).His relationship with the boy, named Klaus Heuser, is described by Mann in his diaries as “the happiest passion in his life” (91). It is worth noting, however, that Mann did not find his relationships with adult males nearly as endearing, and also once believed he was “falling in love” with his own son (91). This certainly brings one to question if Mann was only homosexual, or if he was also a pedophile. Nonetheless, he did not live openly in either case per se, as Feuerlicht notes, Mann was married to a woman, and was also much more open in his diaries than he ever was in his fiction writing (89-92). Mann, while hiding his innermost desires completely, opens the curtain for us to peek into as he poetically describes his predilection for young male beauty through the window of Aschenbach’s increasingly obsessive fascination with Tadzio.
Gustav Von Aschenbach braves even deadly disease to pursue his young love interest (341). He is “no longer content to rely on daily routine or chance to see or be near the beauty,” and so he begins to follow him (343). Aschenbach is described as being one who would “lay in wait,” being guided by a “demon,” and as a man who was “fettered by passion” (344). Not only does this describe the intensity of his fascination with Tadzio, Mann also sets the backdrop of this forbidden passion as something evil, something, perhaps, animalistic and wrong. In this way, Mann’s authorial intent would not be called into question. If he, himself, recognized Aschenbach’s actions as works of the devil, then he could not possibly be accused of having those same desires. Mann continues to disguise his own life as a fictional story of the evils of forbidden passion as we read on.
Once more we find ourselves voyeurs of a voyeur as Aschenbach watches Tadzio from the balustrade (348-349). There has been a shift in the mood as Tadzio is now not only aware of Aschenbach, but glancing at him (349). Fully aware if noticed trouble would surely be visited upon him, Aschenbach carefully avoides direct eye contact with the boy (349). As Aschenbach is irritated that Tadzio is so closely guarded, he notices the singer who is serenading the crowd (349-350). The description of the musician is interesting when contrasted with that of Tadzio.
The musician is described as having had too much exposure to the sun, which had apparently aged him (350). The narrator goes on to say the singer has a “scraggy neck” with eyebrows that might not match the rest of his features (350). He also carried with him a “powerful stench of carbolic acid” (350). When compared to the loving description of beauty ascribed to Tadzio, one of “innate and inevitable grace,” one might wonder if the musician was truly that offensive, or if it was the fact the musician had matured beyond the age of attraction for Aschenbach (349). That Aschenbach is so acutely offended by the odor of the musician is curious because, as the narrator tells us, “no one else seemed concerned” (351). Was it the smell of disinfectant, or was it age that caused the disdain of the love-sick man?
Seeing that Tadzio “is sickly” and “probably won’t grow old,” Aschenbach, rather than be worried only for the health of the young man, feels “reckless satisfaction” (353). The young object of his affection will never reach the putrid age that causes an offensive air to surround Aschenbach. Even if Tadzio passed away, Aschenbach’s memory of him would always be of a young man.
Falling into a dream state, Aschenbach envisions a pagan ritual rife with sexual symbols (358). “Cavorting creatures” danced naked as desire called to him with “enticing flute music” (358). Another phallic symbol is hinted at as only an “obscene symbol, gigantic, wooden,” and Aschenbach, in his dream, had joined them, partaking in “the frenzy and fornication of doom” (359). Of course, Aschenbach’s fall into what might be described as a coven of witches speaks to what might become of one who participates in lurid behavior. Worthy of discussion is that Aschenbach did not partake in sexual activity with the females, but only entered the scene as the large, phallic symbol is brought forth (359). In this way, Mann calls attention specifically to homosexual activity rather than only to sexual activity. Aschenbach joins the scene, regardless of consequence, seemingly helpless and “powerless in the demon’s grip” upon waking (359). While only a dreamlike shrug of authority, Mann does seem to question one’s ability to stave off desire simply because the repercussions might be costly, but nonetheless shows the “evils” of sexual promiscuity, specifically homosexual activity.
Even before this scene, Mann seems to call into question governing bodies who impose rules, while also aligning himself with them. As he pursued Tadzio he questions himself “What am I doing,” he asks, remembering his “ancestry” and their opinions of his behavior (346). He could not think of his ancestors being caught in the same situation as he because of their “rigorous self-control” (346). Aschenbach considered himself not unlike his “bourgeois forefathers” because he considered his art not unlike war (346). Moreover, one might conclude Aschenbach also fought a war to be accepted in a world so quick to denounce him if they were to know the truth, yet another nod to the struggle of Mann’s own life.
Mann wisely constructs a metaphor for all of this story in the tale of a city on the brink of disaster. He speaks of Venice being “the cajoling and dubious beauty” wherein “art had once voluptuously run riot in the putrid air and which gave musicians sounds that lull and lollop lasciviously….he also recalled that the city was ill, but concealing its illness out of greed” (345). Mann’s life was not unlike Venice. He was an artist full of beauty and talent, who gave gifts of the written word to the masses. Yet, he was “sick” by societal standards. Mann then was forced to conceal his own “illness,” homosexuality, and possibly pedophilia, in order to continue to be a successful writer, just as the cholera in Venice had to be concealed. Mann concealed his supposed illness not with putrid chemicals, but in a character named, Gustav Von Aschenbach, who finds his death at the end of a forbidden romance amongst the waterways of Italy.
Bernhard, Frank. “Mann’s Death in Venice.” Explicator. 45.1. 31-32.
Heldref Publications: New York, New York. 1986. PDF.
Feuerlicht, Ignace. “Thomas Mann and Homoeroticism.” The Germanic Review.
89-97. 2002. PDF.
Mann, Thomas. “Death in Venice.” Death in Venice and Other Tales. 285-366.
Penguin Books: New York. New York. 1999. Print.
OED.Com. Oxford English Dictionary Online. http://www.oed.com.proxyse.uits.iu.edu/