THE FRUSTRATED POET: HOMOSEXUALITY AND TABOO IN DER TOD IN VENEDIG
T. J. Reed
I meant to say no more about Der Tod in Venedig, having just finished a small book on it.1 But a project on taboos plainly had to have a text on homosexuality, and Mann's Venice novella is surely the German text. Moreover 'taboo' offers a new angle on the story -- or rather it confirms what is now a necessary understanding of both the writing and the reception of Der Tod in Venedig. Critics are at last looking frankly at the homosexual element in Thomas Mann's work. The concept of taboo helps to explain why it has taken them so long to do that. And substantively it helps to explain the genesis, the final form, and some of the crucial detail of the novella itself.
To begin with some very obvious propositions and distinctions about the phenomenon of sexual taboo in general: there are a) taboo subjects and b) taboo activities or relationships. Heterosexuality has commonly been a taboo subject, even if always accompanied by the temptation and pleasure of breaking the taboo. Why there was one at all on talking or writing publicly about an activity recognised as normal by society is a question for anthropologists. Was it feared that too much light might harm the mysterious and necessary act of procreation? Or that open discussion might turn what was already a prime preoccupation into an obsession (as it since has)? Whatever the reason, society's principle was for a long time: intercourse, yes; discourse, no. But by the late twentieth century, European art, especially literature, has largely put paid to that taboo. Homosexuality, in contrast, has been in most societies and at most times a taboo activity -- with the notable exception, in some periods and at some social levels, of Ancient Greece. It was thus necessarily a taboo subject as well, since b) almost necessarily