In 1911, the great writer Thomas Mann (1875–1955) went on vacation with his family to a seaside resort in Venice, Italy. There, he came across a beautiful 14-year-old boy and it inspired his great novella Death in Venice. This experience sets up the central struggle in the story: where eros—or erotic love as seen in Plato’s dialogue Symposium—can lead one to recognize beauty in its “pure” or “ideal” form and toward an understanding of truth.
To rest in the arms of perfection is the desire of any man intent upon creating excellence… –Death in Venice
The story’s main character is Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous writer in his fifties. Suffering from writer’s block, he resolves to take a vacation in Venice, where he crosses paths with a 14-year-old Polish boy—Tadzio—and his family. Aschenbach soon becomes obsessed with the exquisite Tadzio. As Aschenbach follows his muse through the streets of Venice and finally to the beach, struggling all the while to master his creeping infatuation, the city itself is overtaken by a mysterious plague. Ultimately, Aschenbach is overcome by the plague as he watches Tadzio playing in the surf.
But now, as he mused idly on such profound matters, the horizontal line of the sea’s shore was suddenly intersected by a human figure, and when he had retrieved his gaze from limitless immensity and concentrated it again, he beheld the beautiful boy, coming from the left and walking past him across the sand. –Death in Venice
Join our heated discussion about Mann’s intentions in this complex and remarkable story. Laura was immediately distressed by Aschenbach’s behavior given the Socratic ideal of beauty as pure and reverent as discussed by Mann; Nathan takes note of Aschenbach’s internal struggle, and wonders what he’s searching for; Mary questions how we approach manners, and how we experience beauty; Cezary insists that Socratic love is too neat, and that real love is an unruly, unraveling experience; and Daniel sums up the struggle in the book for Aschenbach and Mann as one of tensions between the ways we perceive and interact with beauty.
Watch Luchino Visconti’s search for the right boy to play the character of Tadzio in 1970 for his 1971 film based on Mann’s novella.
Thanks to Christopher Nolen for the music.