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 than 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 Aschen...
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...oward 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.
1. Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice. Dover Thrift Editions. 1995. NY.
2. Webster’s Dictionary, 1913 edition. http://machaut.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/WEBSTER.sh?WORD=Disease
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