Two Orders of Myth in Death in Venice

Article excerpt

Chapter 4 of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice opens with this sentence: "The god with fiery cheeks now, naked, directed his horses, four-abreast, fire breathing, day by day through the chambers of heaven, and his yellow curls fluttered along with the blast of the east wind" (34). This describes (after a fashion) the morning after Gustav von Aschenbach's thwarted attempt to leave Venice--those misdirected trunks cannot have been entirely an "accident"--and after the subsequent admission to himself that attraction to the boy Tadzio has drawn him back, has, indeed, upended his whole existence. The rigidly disciplined artist whose life had always resembled a tightly clinched fist now

looked into himself [ ... ] an alert, curious, witty smile crossed his lips. Then he raised his head and with both his arms [ ... ] he made a slow circling and lifting motion that turned his palms forward, as if to signify an opening and extending of his embrace. It was a gesture of readiness, of welcome, and of relaxed acceptance. (34)

The mythic, metaphoric description of next morning's dawn differs radically from anything before it in the novella. Except for limning the fantasy vision briefly evoked by the sight of the stranger in Munich's English Garden in the first pages, the style of Death in Venice to this point has been realistic, economical, straightforward, even when recounting Aschenbach's occasional "slippage" of vision toward the phantasmagoric as he nears Venice: "It seemed to him that things were starting to take a turn away from the ordinary, as if a dreamy estrangement, a bizarre distortion of the world were settling in and would spread if he did not put a stop to it by shading his eyes a bit and taking another look around him" (15). Once, however, the god with fiery cheeks begins to drive his chariot each morning through the tale, a new idiom emerges, allusive, ornate, baroque: "His eyes embraced the noble figure there on the edge of the blue [Tadzio], and in a transport of delight he thought his gaze was grasping beauty itself, the pure form of divine thought, the universal and pure perfection that lives in the spirit and which here, graceful and lovely, presented itself for worship in the form of human likeness and exemplar" (37). But this rhapsody is immediately followed by the narrator's distancing qualification: "Such was his intoxication" (37). Or again: "So, too, did the god [Amor] like to make use of the figure and coloration of human youth in order to make the spiritual visible to us, furnishing it with the reflected glory of beauty ... "; followed by: "These, at any rate, were the thoughts of the impassioned onlooker. He was capable of sustaining just such a high pitch of emotion. He spun himself a charming tapestry out of the roar of the sea and the glare of the sun" (37-38). This pattern of mythic-allusive rhapsody immediately counterpointed by the narrator's realistic deflation-cum-explicit - disapproval striates the story, climaxing in that moment when Aschenbach seeks to justify his erotic besottedness with a boy as the sort of infatuation that even the greatest ancient heroes had suffered when the love god took possession of them. "Numerous war heroes of ages past had willingly borne the yoke imposed by the god, for a humiliation imposed by the god did not count. Acts that would have been denounced as signs of cowardice when done in other circumstances and for other ends ... none redounded to the shame of the lover, but he more likely reaped praise for them" (48). The narrative eye cast on this sophistry could hardly be colder, more ironically analytical: "Such was the infatuated thinker's train of thought; thus he thought to offer himself support; thus he attempted to preserve his dignity" (48).

This pattern of alternation indicates that the mythic-rhapsodic purple passages reflect the workings of Aschenbach's imagination, his projections, his rationalizations, distinctly delimited from the narrator's sober and sobering account, an instance of what narratologists call free indirect discourse (or in German "erlebte Rede," literally, experienced discourse. …


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