Academic journal article German Quarterly

Masculinity in Crisis: Aging Men in Thomas Mann's "Der Tod in Venedig" and Max Frisch's Homo Faber

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Masculinity in Crisis: Aging Men in Thomas Mann's "Der Tod in Venedig" and Max Frisch's Homo Faber

Article excerpt

In his Tagebuch 1966-1971, Swiss writer Max Frisch envisions the all-male club "Vereinigung Freitod," whose members swear to commit suicide once they show severe signs of senescence and can no longer meet the expectations of the bourgeois male role.1 The minimum age to join the club is fifty, which, since antiquity, has been associated with a critical phase of physical and mental decline in men, and at various times has been described as "climacterium virile," "male menopause," or the "midlife crisis ,"2 The protagonists of Thomas Mann's novella "Der Tod in Venedig" (1912) and Max Frisch's novel Homofaber{19S7) have both reached this critical age. Yet, unlike the members of the "Vereinigung Freitod," whose oaths reconfirm their dedication to traditional masculinity, Frisch's Walter Faber and Mann's Gustav Aschenbach set out to search for meaning and intellectual, emotional, and physical satisfaction beyond the bourgeois order, fleeing from seemingly well-adjusted lives into socially proscribed erotic relationships. Instead of restoring their abilities to conform to a masculine ideal, their journeys and relationships prompt them to experiment with new male images and worldviews.

In "Der Tod in Venedig" and Homo faber, the protagonists' "midlife crises" emerge as crises in representation. In her work on the performativity of gender, Judith Butler shows that, in order to endure, normative male and female social roles must be reiterated constantly and are therefore vulnerable to destabilization and subversion through "a failure to repeat, a de-formity, or a parodie repetition" (192). The engineer Faber and the writer Aschenbach are highly regarded representatives of bourgeois masculinity and enjoy the social (and financial) privileges that come with their professional success and gender. Yet when the aging protagonists can no longer perform their roles, their privileged standings are at risk. As Faber and Aschenbach struggle with their declining bodies and loss of status, the close interconnection between socially constructed age and gender norms and the significance that these categories hold for male identity formation emerge. In their works, Mann and Frisch reveal the performative nature ofboth age and the categories of masculinity and femininity, and they explore the tensions that arise where subjective age (how old one feels), physiological age (how well one's body functions), and social age (how old society considers one to be, based on the number of years one has lived) meet and interfere with gender performance. In doing so, these writers anticipate recent scholarship in the area of aging studies in which age is understood as a culturally con- structed, performative, and gendered category (Calasanti and King; Calasanti and Slevin; Gillette, Declining, Marshall and Katz). This scholarly research suggests that European and North American societies conceive of aging and old age negatively, regardless of gender, and that many of the difficulties experienced by aging men arise from a loss of privilege normally accorded to those who emulate the male ideal more closely. In other words, they experience their declining bodies and minds as sources of age-based inequality and ageism.

In Mann's and Frisch's texts, the protagonists' forbidden desires-Aschenbach lusts after a teenage boy, F aber falls in love with his daughter-appear as expressions of their masculinities in crisis and thus illustrate both the power of the traditional male image and its precariousness. Reading the works together reveals the ways in which the concept of male midlife crisis frames issues arising in both texts: age, decay, illness, and sexuality in connection with fatherhood and family structures and values. As becomes clear, the subversive potential of these works lies less in their depictions of so-called sexual deviance than in their strong representations of the potentially destructive effects of normative concepts of age and masculinity, as well as the paths Frisch and Mann trace to undermine these categories. …

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