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.

Gazebo

“Give me permission to take the dog on top of the gazebo, Maman,” the son wept, akimbo, with whiskey soup in his heart. “He is in no shape for the future. His now is dust.”

“And,” inquired Maman, “what are your intentions with him on top of the gazebo?”

“To lift him up, in my arms, and to hurl him to the ground. Listen to him wheeze. Watch him, our sedentary hound, lounge, against his nature, in pain. If I were situated as he, I would expect you to do to me what I am asking you to let me do to him now.”

“And,” inquired Maman, “what if he just breaks some bones? What if he lays there, broken, still wheezing, suffering more than before you so heroically hurled him from the gazebo?”

“I will put my boot on his throat until it snaps.”

“And,” inquired Maman, “who will bury him? My shoveling shoulder is in no condition for a burial. And you, son, look at your knees. They are weak with drink. Can you stand long enough to shovel? Are your hands sturdy enough for the job?”

“I’ll have you know that they are. I’ll have you know that my shoveling prowess is emboldened by drink. Just wait, Maman. When you die, I will draw deep from bottles and I will shovel madly—day and night if necessary. But tell me, Maman, how deep will you have me dig? Twice as deep as I’ll dig for this dog? Where I will call on no one, not one man with a shovel to help me along, either. Where the mounting soil on your casket will throng a sense of pride into you that life and an open atmosphere has never allowed you to possess, with any sense of freedom, in me.”

“And,” inquired Maman, “As I lay dead—dead as you’ll have this dog, if I allow it to die—what will you be left with? Buried, as I’ll be, what shoveling will you have to pine for? You will be as dead as I—as this dog—shovel-lorn, shaking and jaundiced from the very poison that encouraged this madness.”

“A madness, you will note, Maman, that has drawn us into the lengthiest intercourse we have had since this dog divided us. Recall another day. A dogless day—not of the future, but the twelve-years past. I had no wine. The matter of the shovel, though creeping nigh, had yet been breached. And where were we? Exercising pleasantries about the passage of the common time between us. This house, that gazebo, they were ours, and we stained the continuum in them. Near them. But then there was barking, Maman. Howling. And how horrible it was. How could I close my ears to such noise without a steady go at the snifters? And could your voice not be cut out in the course of such things? How could it get to me?”

“And,” inquired Maman, “who begged for that beast? Who begged to introduce that animal into our peace—to cut the bond of our stain on the continuum? You demanded a triad. But we could never fuse, could we? And where three could not fuse into one, two, all ready bonded, were torn—where they, now apart, were tormented by the incessant howling of an alien entity introduced into an environment that it was never meant to join.”

“Then let me splatter my mistake at the foot of the gazebo! Let me silence the howling! What will I have to drown out when it stops? Where you and I will be as we were twelve-years past! Bonded! Where I can be clean!”

“And,” inquired Maman, “will these twelve-years past not stain the present? Will they not have stained our future? Will those twelve-years not weigh as heavily on us as the earth you will shovel on my corpse?”

“Then forget the shoveling, Maman. But don’t let us forget our bond. And don’t let us forget our division. Come with me. Come with that dog, to the roof of the gazebo. We’ll link our hands with the paws of that poor, wheezing animal. And, as three, with the purpose of one—never achieved in the twelve-years past—we’ll leap. We’ll leap. And finally, splattered at the foot of the gazebo, the howling will cease.”

“And,” inquired Maman, “what if we don’t splatter? What if we just twitch at the foot of the gazebo?”

“Then we will twitch as one. We’ll twitch, and we’ll howl.”

“And,” inquired Maman, “what will become of our stain?”

“Its form, Maman, will take its shape.”

Maman nodded in the affirmative. The three of them took to the gazebo’s top, their hands and paws linked. There was a step backward, preceding a rush forward, but where the dog and the son went over the edge, Maman withdrew her hands and watched them splatter.

She came off of the gazebo, and while her shoveling shoulders ached, she went into the shed to collect her spade.

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Chris Dire is a neophyte, so far as words are concerned, though on a fluke, at least a decade ago, he had a few of his words printed in a journal at The Community College of Aurora, and maybe a year later, in The Copper Nickel, a publication put out by The University of Colorado at Denver.

Meditations Of Cookie Bear

I don’t know who you hue mans think you are.

I’ve got the sensibilities of a dali painting

and the eyes of a goddess

and share my name with a two bit soft core porn star, many strippers and a glutton of a kid’s tv show

I would like you for a moment to observe

with such grace and humility

how I scratch up this cardboard box

with Sisyphean angst I can muster and acceptance that Camus would be fucking proud

look at how I accept my fate and enjoy the hell out of it

I do not understand

OH MY GOD OPEN WINDOWS ARE THE BEST

DUDE SERIOUSLY

HAVE YOU SEEN THIS SHIT

THERE ARE POSSIBILITIES BEYOND OUR REALMS OF UNDERSTANDING

I NEED A NAP.

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Jeannette Gomes is a poet/traveller/student living in Chicago. She has three roommates, two of them are cats. She enjoys long walks on beaches and existentialism.

In The End

In the end, we are sitting in lawn chairs on the roof of the high rise, watching the city burn. Genise walks to the edge, looking out, and I stand beside her. She leans into me and says, “Who knew the end would be so dazzling? It’s like a night feast in space.” I inhale her, the lime musk of my wife’s sweat.

We go inside and call our friends in honor of the end, tell them, “farewell,” “adieu” or “envoi,” but they do not hear us. Genise dangles a bedsheet from the living room window, on which she has written, “Welcome to the end. Welcome to love” and lets it fall.

I turn on all the lights in our apartment and listen to the simmering of shattering glass from the shops and cafes lining the streets below. People scramble. We whistle, blow kisses to them all, those unknowing others so overwhelmed by the end we are savoring.

Our child, you see, is the end.

Genise showers.

“Come, look at the way he juggles the cars with the bridges, dear,” I say.

“He’s auditioning for the cabaret,” she says, towelling herself dry in the kitchen while stirring a pot of mashed apples. “Would you like some more quiche? Perhaps, some roast salmon with lemon drizzles?”

“No,” I say, transfixed by the end.

A smoldering shape, a paper-mache elephant floats across the sky in front of the high rise, a balloon made of thunder, its smoky tusks are wings carrying it to oblivion. Oh, to be alive at the end.

“How about some octopus fritters with cod roe and mayonnaise,” she asks, always the host, Genise.

Our child holds an electrical tower like a bat, tossing bundles of pedestrians into the air and knocking them past the horizon or all the way up to space where sheets of fire rain down in waves.

“Should we call him back home,” she says.

“I think we should sleep soon,” I say.

“He moves with joy,” she says.

Our child stomps and wiggles, claps and giggles his body to the sounds of a music only he can comprehend.

“Put on that record I like,” Genise says. I kiss her above the stump of skin where her ear once was, stroll to the cabinet, and set the needle in place on the record. She passes me a glass of honey and winks. Her wink sparkles. We clink glasses to the end and listen to the crackle give way to the rush of stirring cymbals.

“What’s this one called again,” she says.

“A love supreme,” she says. The words flow out of her scarred mouth. “Who knew the end would be full of so much love and beauty.”

“It’s good to know this is all we have in the end,” I say. I let the honey coat my mouth.

She pours me another and laughs. Our child is closer to the high rise. The screams below crash against the jazz, but we do not hear them. His bulbous head and arms block the wall of flames that roar in the distance. He bends until only his pupil fills the window. He stares at us with a look of warmth or longing.

“One last dance,” I say.

“Until the very end,” Genise says. “Until the end of the end of the end of the end . . .”

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Jamie Grefe lives in Beijing, China, despite the air. His work appears in Mud Luscious Online Quarterly, New Dead Families, Brown God, Untoward Magazine and elsewhere. He continues to grow grey hair and panda eyes. Keep in touch here.