Untoward Stories: Death In Venice / Thomas Mann

Under Hitler’s ‘Thousand Years’ Third Reich (1933 to 1945), the Nazis abolished freedom of speech (1938) and persecuted anyone who spoke out against their barbarism. Among the political exiles was writer, Thomas Mann (mahn), whose Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929 (citing his novels Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain) put him among Germany’s most celebrated Post WW I writers. He was also “the most violently debated figure of 20th Century German literature” (per Georg Lukas, quoting the anti-Marxist polemicist, Sidney Bolkosky); that `violently debated’ part being attributable to allegations that Mann’s supposed political equivocation when it came to Germany’s ruined economy played into the hands of her enemies, the Communists.

There was also the matter of the controversial sexual themes, most notably ‘Death in Venice’ (1911), which Mann’s obsessively severe critic, Alfred Kerr, suggested ‘made pederasty acceptable to the cultivated middle classes,’ a gross distortion later repudiated by worldwide admiration for Mann’s work and the prestigious Nobel award. (Wikipedia)

Technically a novella (at more than twice the length of Disorder and Early Sorrow), Death in Venice is arguably Mann’s finest ‘short’ work. Made into a haunting motion picture filmed on the Lido in Venice, it details the obsession of a fictional celebrated German writer, von Aschenbach, with a Polish lad of fourteen years, Tadzio, a plot line that sounds at the very least (as Kerr’s misguided comment suggests) sordid. In truth, there is nothing sordid about Death in Venice. The story is a beautifully crafted measure of the struggle of a renowned author who has lost his family and no longer functions in his art, and, in the wake of an epiphany of disturbing self-awareness, has begun a slide toward death. (`He was alone, he was a foreigner, he was sunk deep in this belated bliss of his, —all of which enabled him to pass unblushing through experiences well-nigh unbelievable.’) An epidemic of Asian Cholera ravages Venice while von Aschenbach, lonely and alone, suffers with the demons of ‘belated bliss’ that drive his obsession with the Polish lad. “. . . (t)he lover, Mann writes,“ was nearer the divine than the beloved; for the god was in the one but not the other—perhaps the tenderest, most mocking thought that was ever thought, and source of all the guile and secret bliss the lover knows.”

Conventional wisdom holds that the seeds of Nazi Germany’s rampant militarism and fascism were sewn in the harsh peace and economic hardship imposed on Germany after WW I, which was why America’s post WW II policy was to rebuild both Germany and Japan and make them trading partners and allies.

In 1925, the year Disorder and Early Sorrow was published, postwar Germany was in considerable distress with widespread political disaffection, rampant inflation and severe shortages of crucial goods, conditions that fueled political unrest and led to Hitler taking power in 1933. The inflationary and political disintegration of the fading Weimar Republic provides the setting for Disorder and Early Sorrow. The story chronicles a day in the life of history professor Dr. Cornelius and his wife, (the ‘old folk’), their older children, Ingrid and Bert (the college age ‘big folk’), and the younger children, Ellie and Snapper (the ‘little folk’), as the family prepares for a party. Physical details are faithfully rendered, as where the entrance hall `. . . looks pleasant and cozy in the bright light, with its copy of Marees over the brick chimney-place, its wainscoted walls, —wainscoted in soft wood, –and red carpeted floor, where the guests stand in groups, chatting, each with his tea cup and bread–and-butter spread with anchovy paste.’

Dr, Cornelius, middle-aged professor-historian, harbors ‘hostility against the history of today’, disapproving of the way young people dress, saying there ‘is no such thing’ as `correct evening dress of the middle classes’, disapproving of their ‘weird music’ and `mad modern dances’ where the dancers hold each other in ways that are ‘quite different and strange’, disapproving of the young men of the theatre, who make their faces up with rouge. Frau Cornelius, meanwhile, thinks of eggs, which `simply must be bought today’, because they are `six thousand marks apiece’. The `big folk’ `must go and fetch them immediately after luncheon’ because eggs are rationed to five per week per household, so the young people will enter the market individually under `assumed names’, and `thus wring twenty eggs from the shopkeeper for the Cornelius family.’ This enterprise is ‘the sporting event of the week’ for the ‘big folk’ and their friends, ‘who delight in misleading and mystifying their fellow men and would revel in the performance even if it did not achieve one single egg.’ The young people, it seems, are better able to adjust to the times than the `old folk’.

In thinking about his love for his youngest daughter, Ellie, Dr. Cornelius recalls seeing her as ‘a little miracle among the pillows’, and ‘almost in that very second he felt himself captured and held fast.’ His love for her ‘took entire possession of him and he understood, with joyous amazement, that this was for life.’ He also understood that there was something ‘not quite right about this feeling, so unaware, so undreamed of, so involuntary.’  Crushed when he tries to embrace Ellie on the dance floor and she ‘eludes him, almost peevishly,’ Dr. Cornelius later takes the stairs ‘two at a time’, rushing to Ellie’s side when Xaver, the servant, tells him that Ellie’s ‘in a bad way’ and ‘crying fit to bust her little heart’. He finds his tired little girl extremely upset as she ‘reiterates her absurd bewildered prayer’ (a silly triviality) that Max (Hergesell), a friend of the ‘big folk’, ‘might be her brother’. Hating the party, Dr. Cornelius blames Ellie’s meltdown on ‘what the party has wrought with its fatal atmosphere.’

‘. . . in childhood,’ Mann concludes, ‘each night is a deep wide gulf between one day and the next.’ ‘Hergesell will be a pale shadow’ and ‘(t)omorrow’, Ellie, ‘forgetful of all but present joy’, will play the ‘ever thrilling’ cushion game, that she’d played so many times before, and she will forget

Heaven be praised for that’, Mann concludes, unaware at the time that a more horrific disorder and sorrow than he could possibly imagine awaited Germany just a few years into the future.