Images of Time and Timelessness: A Musical Reading of Death in Venice

By De Munck, Marlies | Current Musicology, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Images of Time and Timelessness: A Musical Reading of Death in Venice


De Munck, Marlies, Current Musicology


This essay is based on an old, well-known question in aesthetics: how to represent time in its fleetingness without halting, appropriating, objectifying, or transcending it? The question inspires a reading of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice as the account of a transformation in which a wish to overcome time turns into the erotic desire of being delivered to time. As such, the story reflects the tension between two competing views of music: music as an Apollonian play of time-transcending, auditory forms, and music as the Dionysian art in time. A phenomenological reading of Luchino Visconti's adaptation of the novella complicates this plainly dualistic opposition. The essay traces how the aesthetic suspension of time is contrasted with, but also depends on, the spectator's real-time experience. Similarly, the two classical, competing views of music stand in a complex dialectical relation to each other and reflect our existential relation to time.

Like the harmony of the spheres, the time that is not our time--time in general--is excluded from immediate sensory perception. Yet, as it is filled with things, episodes, and actions, we can abstractly distinguish between its worldly effects and time as the cause that transcends experience. Still, it is hard to conceive of time in itself without imaginatively turning it into an abstract state of timelessness, a static, eternal realm of time. To be sure, many great thinkers have questioned the "out-thereness" of time and have regarded it, rather, as a universal post rem or a priori form of intuition. Even within the confines of human experience time causes philosophical puzzlement. It dictates our whole lives, imposes its monomaniac regime of irreversibility on everything it touches, but eludes our grasp whenever we try to engage in it, in and of itself. At first sight, its intangibility may facilitate a common desire to bracket time or our consciousness of it. Who has never longed for a world in which the persons and things we love simply stay the way they are? On the other hand, we are also obsessed with time, as we love punctuality and as we delight in races against the clock. The obsession with exact time can easily be exposed, however, as yet another attempt to control its unceasing and unforgiving movement. It is as if time plays with us, being both present and absent, not only in and to our experience but even in our thoughts. Time does not just fly--it plays hide-and-seek.

In and Out of Time

In its play of presence and absence, the experience of time is closely related to the fear of death. To appease this fear, it is often said that death needs to be given a face. Following Emmanuel Levinas and Philippe Aries, Rudi Visker argues that naming or representing death symbolically separates it from life and fends it off as a heterogeneous element. The correct way to exorcize the dead and keep them from haunting the living consists neither in explaining death philosophically nor in calculating its medical probability. To be a successful image of death, not even resemblance is needed. All that is required is for us to put it boldly in its proper place--on the shelf--thereby isolating it from life (Visker 2007, 140-54). Similarly, time can be represented symbolically. Successful images of time offer a handle on its otherwise uncontrollable fleetingness; by bringing it under our explicit attention and making it graspable to the senses they enable us to relate to time and vicariously help us deal with life's transience. The question, however, is what kind of time such images relate us to. When time is placed "out there," is it not transfigured into something else--a timeless object--just like symbols of death are purported to do? To what extent, then, is it still an image of time?

Music--not the celestial, inaudible music of the spheres but our own earthly music--has often been considered to be the perfect medium to represent time. According to Arthur Schopenhauer, however, music offers an escape from the threat of time by taking us out of it. …

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