An Object-Relational Interpretation of Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice"

By Zlotnick-Woldenberg, Carrie | American Journal of Psychotherapy, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

An Object-Relational Interpretation of Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice"


Zlotnick-Woldenberg, Carrie, American Journal of Psychotherapy


CARRIE ZLOTNICK-WOLDENBERG, M.A.J

The protagonist of Thomas Mann's novella "Death in Venice" is examined in terms of object-relational theory. Splitting, his primary defense mechanism, which is employed both intrapsychically and interpersonally, is discussed at length, as is his problematic relationship with his parents, which has resulted in his fixation in the paranoid/schizoid position and his ultimate destruction.

Gustave Aschenbach, the protagonist of Thomas Mann's tragic novella, "Death in Venice," is a middle-aged acclaimed writer, who seemingly has been leading a rather conventional life. Upon noticing an exotic looking man near a Munich cemetery, he has a sudden impulse to travel. He winds up in Venice, a city with a warmer climate than Munich's, both in the literal and symbolic sense. There he becomes obsessed with Tadzio, a fourteenyear-old boy. Aschenbach follows him everywhere and thinks of little else. When soon thereafter, he learns of a cholera epidemic in Venice, which the authorities have tried to conceal from the tourists, not only does he not leave but he also fails to warn the boy's mother of the danger because he cannot bear to be separated from Tadzio. Aschenbach dies on the day the boy's family is scheduled to leave Venice.

In Freudian terms, the central conflict of the protagonist would be described as his struggle between id and superego. Pushed to achieve as a child, never knowing "the sweet idleness and blithe `laissez aller' that belongs to youth"'1 (p. 9), Aschenbach has spent his life as a writer nurturing and developing his intellect and discipline (there are frequent associations with St. Sebastian, who repudiated desire in favor of selfcontrol), while repressing his passions. These have been sublimated in his writing. In the course of the novella, he decides that he needs a rest from writing, i.e., a temporary suspension of his sublimation. In a complete reversal, he yields to his more primitive impulses, which he is initially able to rationalize. When, for example, his passions are aroused by the man at the cemetery, he claims that a trip would improve his work rather than admitting that his emotions had been stirred. Later, he justifies his lust for Tadzio by elevating him to an object of perfect beauty. Aschenbach's references to Phaedrus serve further to "explain" his "artistic" interest in the boy. However, it is clear in the orgiastic dream that Aschenbach's interest in the boy is not merely a pursuit of artistic form.

Freudians would describe the novella in terms of the conflict between id and superego, as seen in Aschenbach's overt behavior and dreams, and refer to the defenses, e.g., sublimation and intellectualization, as means to avoid confrontation with what Aschenbach considers his baser self. Objectrelations theorists would analyze the problem differently. Their primary focus would be on the way in which Aschenbach, unable to accept ambivalence, sees the world in terms of polar opposites, using splitting as his primary defense mechanism, both intrapsychically and in relation to others. Intrapsychically, the split is between the passionate, artistic self-his mother's inheritance, which he denies-and the disciplined, intellectual, moralistic self-his father's inheritance, which he accepts. The two parts of himself do not communicate with one another; they are, like Italy and Germany, the two settings in the novella, cultural opposites that cannot coexist. In his interpersonal relationships, he also tends toward polarization, demonizing or idealizing others but not relating to them as integrated wholes. In short, Aschenbach does not experience ambivalence interpersonally or intrapsychically, and, as Ogden2 might explain, in place of temporal contiguity there is a constant creation and recreation of reality.

In his portrait of Aschenbach, Mann creates a character who lives a life of the mind, relegating much ego to his inner world and leaving little, if any, available for relationships with others. …

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