To have an understanding of the use of disease as a metaphor in Thomas Mann's novella Death In Venice, it is useful to understand the concept of disease itself. According to Webster's Dictionary, 1913 edition, disease is defined as the "lack of ease; uneasiness; trouble; vexation; disquiet." These words do embody the struggles of the great author, and main character of the novella, Gustav Aschenbach, but it is the description of disease as "an alteration in the state of the body or of some of its organs, interrupting or disturbing the performance of the vital functions, and causing or threatening pain and weakness; malady; affection; illness; sickness; disorder; -- applied figuratively to the mind, to the moral character and habits, to institutions, the state, etc" that is the foundation of the metaphor used by Mann. The disease spreading through Venice, is presumed to be cholera, and to what Aschenbach surrenders to in Venice. However, upon careful examination of the words written so eloquently, one can find that the death of Aschenbach was more that of an artist afflicted with passion and lust for beauty than of any physical ailment.
Mann carefully combines philosophy and psychology in Death in Venice, and these two general areas of intellect are in conflict throughout the novella. Specifically, it is the philosophy of art, one's quest for beauty, and the psychological theory of repression derived from Freud that present themselves as key concerns in the metaphor of disease. Aschenbach, in his question for beauty, and in his repressed upbringing as an outcast of sorts from his great forefathers lead to the internal conflict he personifies. "His forebears had been officers, judges, bureaucrats, men who had led their disciplined, respectable, and frugal lives in the services of king and state. Deeper intellectuality had embodied itself among them on one occasion, in the person of a preacher; more swiftly flowing and sensual blood had entered the family in the previous generation through the writer's mother, daughter of a Bohemian orchestra conductor. It was from her that he derived the signs of foreign ancestry in his appearance.
The marriage of a sober official conscientiousness with darker, more ardent impulses produced an artist, this particular artist." These words allow us to see into the character of Aschenbach. The artist, coming from a tradition of great men in their own rights, chose a different path for his life. However, we cannot leave our past behind, and no doubt, he was brought up in a formal fashion, taught through his role models to hide emotions and to repress his desires, those characteristics one often thinks of when under the impression of an artist. When dis-ease occurs within an individual, conflict occurs, and the physical being becomes deteriorated. Understanding the past experiences of some can help us in our quest to understand whom they are and why they choose to behave in the manner in which we are accustomed. At the beginning of his journey, we see Gustav as a figure of esteem and prestige.
However, upon his arrival in Venice, Mann allows the reader a glimpse into his journey, the progression of an infection into complete abandonment of rationale. It is also from the very beginning of the novella that a parallel emerges between the physical disease, the plague upon Venice, and the distress with in the main character himself. In particular, we see this rejection of the astute artist and the acceptance of the passive, receptive man of desire when he encounters a gondolier who does not lead him to his desired location, but rather has taken the notion to take him to his actual destination directly. .".. the traveler saw no way to enforce his orders. Anyway, how comfortably he could rest if he didn't get excited! Had he not wished for the ride to last a long time - forever? It was wisest to let things take their course and, most of all, it was extremely pleasant...
The idea that he had fallen into the hands of a criminal crossed Aschenbach's mind in a dreamy way, but was powerless to arouse his thoughts to active resistance... ." Venice is alive with tourists, alive with life and beauty. Aschenbach though, represses his desires for a young boy from a Polish family that he notices the first night of his stay at the H^otel des Bains. The reader later learns the boy's name is Tadzio, and from the first recollection of him by Aschenbach, his true deterioration begins, he becomes injected with disease of passion, pleasure, and loses his sense of rationality." With astonishment Aschenbach observed that the boy was perfectly beautiful. His face, pale and charmingly secretive, with the honey-colored hard curling around it, with its straight-sloping nose, its lovely mouth and its expression of sweet and diving earnestness, recalled Greek statues of the noblest period, and, along with its extremely pure perfection of form. The morning after his first discovery of the young boy, he becomes depressed with the weather in Venice.
"Once, years before, after weeks of clear spring skies, this type of weather had afflicted him here, affecting his health so badly that he had had to abandon Venice like a fugitive." We see here that he perhaps finds himself losing control, and wishes to leave Venice out of fear of the expression of his natural, albeit, repressed desires. Aschenbach hastily decides to end his stay in Venice after a walk through the city where he is faced with physical distresses, making it more apparent to the reader, and to the renowned author himself that something was not right in Venice, nor perhaps within himself." The longer he walked, the more tormented he became by the horrible state of health that the sea air can cause in conjunction with the scirocco, a state of excitement and prostration at the same time... On a quiet square, one of those spots deep within Venice that give the impression of being forgotten under an evil spell, he rested by the rim of a fountain, dried his forehead and realized that he had to go away." Aschenbach dec ides to leave Venice and prepares to leave the following day. The reader sees that it is with regret that he leaves Tadzio, "Adieu Tadzio! I didn't have long to look at you." He leaves the Hotel behind and heads to the train station. This and the events that succeed at the train station are turning points in the novel for the character metaphorically it is the expression of the disease." Was it possible that he hadn't knows or considered how dear all of this was to him? What in the morning had been a half-regret, a slight doubt about the correctness of his actions, now became a grief, a real ache, a distress of the soul, so bitter that more than once it brought tears to his eyes, a distress that he told himself he couldn't possibly have for seen...
he would have to look on it henceforth as a place where it was impossible ad forbidden for him to stay, a place he just wasn't up to and which it would be pointless to visit again. Yes, he felt that, if he left now, shame and defiance would surely prevent him from ever seeing the city he loved again, after he had twice broken down physically there' and this contention between his soul's inclination and his body's capabilities suddenly seemed so weighty and important to the aging man, his physical defeat do shameful, to be combated at all costs, that he could not understand the frivolous submissiveness with which yesterday, without a serious struggle, he had decided to bear and acknowledge that defeat... For the tortured man departure seems impossible, but turning back no less so. Thus, totally at war with himself, he enters that station." It is here that the unexpected occurs.
His luggage was sent along already, to the wrong destination, and as a result will not be returned to Venice for a few days. Aschenbach is presented with a decision at this point. Does he stay in Venice and enjoy the pleasure of seeing Tadzio, or does he simply go on to his next stop and await the arrival of his luggage there? He decides to remain in Venice. On his journey back to the hotel, he is overcome with excitement to be returning to his seaside escape and back into the presence of beauty in the form of Tadzio. "From time to time his breast was still shaken by laughter over this mishap which, he told himself, could not have befallen even a Sunday's child more opportunely." From this point on, the disease in Venice and the disease within Aschenbach progresses at a rapid pace. He becomes more and more infatuated with the boy, and loses control of himself, much the person who is surrendering to an ailment.
Meanwhile, Aschenbach begins to notice that the city is being disinfected, and yet, is unable to receive an answer as to why this is happening. He learns that indeed, the city is now under the control of the plague, and it is apparent to the reader at this time that Aschenbach is progressing quickly in his own disease of the soul. He considers telling the Polish family of the plague so that they may escape the city without it harming the young Tadzio, but he represses this information. "For, deeply in love, he worried only that Tadizo might go away, and he realized, not without a shock, that he would not know how to go on living should that occur." The Venetians and Aschenbach are both sources of deception. The people of Venice refuse to tell of the plague so as not to lose the business of the tourists, and Aschenbach refuses to tell of it to the Poles so as not to lose the beauty of Tadzio.
He is endangering himself and Tadzio by remaining; as they say, "misery loves company." By not telling this information, we see that a moral alteration within the artist as he surrenders to his disease. Aschenbach, like anyone who is suffering, attempts to regain control over his life, and seeks the aid of the barber who restores him to a state of youthfulness and health cosmetically. He hopes that these changes will somehow draw the boy to him, like the sick man who tries to cover up his illness to hold on to his life. However, the novella draws to a close when he hears that the Polish family are leaving. He goes to the beach where Tadzio is, and sets himself in a manner so that he can enjoy the pleasure of seeing the boy for the few hours that he will remain with him. Despite his efforts to fight his aging, the cholera, which the reader assumes he has contracted overcomes him there on the beach.
He collapses there as he tries to reach the boy who is standing at the shoreline. It is now that we see that as Aschenbach finally surrenders to his passions and inhibitions that he loses his self and is taken by the disease." But a moral determination which transcends learning, which transcends the knowledge that dissolves and obstructs - does that now signify in its turn a na " ive simplification, a moral oversimplification of the world and the psyche, and thus also a strengthening of the tendency toward evil, the forbidden and the morally impossible?" Disease of the soul, and disease of the body are much the same. One is no more disturbing than the other, and as Mann writes about this theme in Death In Venice we see that when we find that which is our passion life stops. .".. even on a personal basis, art is an enhancement of life. It makes you more deeply happy, it wears you out faster." We are no longer responsible for our actions for we have found that which our life has been lived for, and there is no longer any reason to go on living when we know that we can never have that which our heart desires.
Disease as a metaphor could also be examined through the characterization of Tadzio. Mann makes several references about the health of the boy himself. Is it that this artistic perfection of which he is the embodiment is something that is not natural? This question was not answered in this assessment of Death in Venice, although it is certainly another area for investigation. Bibliography 1.
Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice. Dover Thrift Editions. 1995. NY. 2.
Webster's Dictionary, 1913 edition. web.