20 January, 2014Issue 24.1Critical TheoryFictionLiteraturePhilosophy

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On the Open Sea

Fergus McGhee

Philip Kitcher
Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach
Columbia University Press, 2013
288 pages
ISBN 978-0231162647

“No other swamp creates such violent fevers” was Gabriele d’Annunzio’s (thoroughly enthusiastic) verdict on Venice. To writers and artists at the turn of the twentieth century, the city was the ever-wilting flower of the Renaissance, a quickening yet deadly compound of beauty and dissolution. Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, Death in Venice, is just as richly ambiguous, constantly inviting and resisting interpretation; happily for us, it has found in Philip Kitcher a shrewd and searching critic.

Kitcher ticks off some familiar sights of the secondary literature: the novella’s sources in myth and philosophy; its relations to Mann’s other writings, the poetry of August von Platen, and Mann’s own biography; and its changing reception, in criticism, on screen, and in opera. But this is a meditation rather than a survey, and Kitcher’s prose burns with first-hand insight, as in his sensitive engagement with the music of Mahler. Above all, as a philosopher, Kitcher is interested in how Mann grapples with philosophical ideas—Plato’s, Schopenhauer’s, Nietzsche’s—while refusing the impulse to treat these as magic keys to meaning. Like any work of art, Mann’s novella is richer than any one critical approach, which may conceal as much as it reveals.

Kitcher deplores the familiar prejudice that there is something unlovely about a “novel of ideas” (citing Henry James’s criticism of Middlemarch) while acknowledging that fiction which is exciting philosophically is often robotic as art (open any page of Sartre’s La Nausée). Laboriously schematic or didactic treatments—the lapse, in George Eliot’s memorable phrase, “from the picture to the diagram”—dehydrate art of life, abandoning it to the predictable and perfunctory. Those adjectives could not be hurled at Death in Venice, despite its elaborate discursions, its almost compulsive allusiveness; on the contrary, for Kitcher, it is a model of how literature can embed the biggest questions within the particular circumstances of human life.

Mann’s novella is thus quite unlike those works in which ideas fulfil a merely decorative function (Kitcher dubiously picks on Hard Times in this regard—a fairer choice might have been something like Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow) or are faithfully expounded, as in Dante’s stratification of Hell according to Aristotelian ethical principles. Echoing his great predecessor at Columbia, John Dewey, Kitcher characterises works like Death in Venice as philosophical explorations in their own right—experiments with values, in which philosophical hard matter is organically integrated with narrative, character, and even style. They flesh out the abstract anatomies of value which we find in treatises like Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics; “to understand how to live”, Kitcher writes, “one must become vividly aware of what it would be like to live in various ways.”

Death in Venice explores a certain kind of life—the artist’s—which preoccupied Mann before the War. Gustav von Aschenbach is introduced as a strenuously disciplined literary master, a “moralist of achievement” (Leistungsethiker) whose intense Beethovenian struggles have produced works of undisputed greatness. He is no Hanno Buddenbrook, the fragile, overbred, musically gifted young man who signifies the degeneration of the great merchant dynasty at the heart of Mann’s family saga of ten years before. Nor is he a Tonio Kröger (the eponymous hero of Mann’s 1903 novel), who, by virtue of his intelligence and sensitivity, feels utterly cut off from respectable society. Kröger simultaneously envies and sees through the “fair-haired and blue-eyed” ones. Aschenbach is not nearly so ambivalent. He has jettisoned the subversive ironies and psychological penetration of his early work in favour of moral forthrightness and formal classicism, and by doing so has won the reverence of public opinion and even the aristocratic appellation ‘von’.

A typical reading of the novella sees the ‘turn’ in Aschenbach’s work as a cynical capitulation to bourgeois values. The second chapter reads like the kind of obituary which a newspaper might keep on standby, a tribute from a grateful nation whose propriety is about to be ruthlessly interrogated. It seems to raise the question of whether an artist—to begin to be any kind of artist at all—must in fact be disturbed by life, and whether that disturbance which is the artist’s nourishment might also, paradoxically, be his nemesis.

In Aschenbach’s case, this disturbance takes the extraordinary form of the statuesque Polish youth Tadzio, whom he observes on the Lido. Apprehending with joy that “the boy’s beauty was perfect”, Aschenbach’s heroic discipline begins to dissolve. This sudden release of obsessive passion is anticipated by the writer’s surrealistic encounter with a grimacing stranger in a cemetery in Munich, which had stirred a threatening erotic vision of a tropical wetland. Mann characterises the unwonted forces stirring in him in mythical terms borrowed from Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy.

For Nietzsche, Greek tragedy was a sort of high-energy collision between two fundamental forces: the Dionysian and the Apollonian. The polarity is adapted from Schopenhauer, whose division of the world into ‘Will’ and ‘Representation’ was itself a modification of Kant’s distinction between the ‘noumenal’ and ‘phenomenal’ realms. Schopenhauer reasoned that if there is an underlying metaphysical reality inaccessible to the senses (Kant’s noumenal world of things-in-themselves), it must be one, for outside of space and time how could it be possible to speak of anything being distinct from anything else? Schopenhauer called this reality ‘Will’ and characterised it in white-knuckle prose as a terrible, blind, rapacious striving which submerged all life in meaningless suffering.

With a table-turning flourish, Nietzsche transformed and transvalued Schopenhauer’s ‘Will’ as the Dionysian principle, hailing it as the vital force of generation and destruction which made art possible. Meanwhile, the Apollonian principle gave form to this force, shaping it with skilful self-possession. Nietzsche accused his own belated culture of smothering the primeval Dionysus under an excess of Apollonian order. Mann’s implication is that Aschenbach has been guilty of the same mistake in his later work.

Eccentrically, Kitcher privileges the Schopenhauerian perspective. He views Aschenbach’s ‘turn’ as a courageous spurning of fashion rather than a self-interested betrayal of literary conscience. Rather than exposing any lack in Aschenbach’s work, the breakdown of his discipline in Venice testifies to Schopenhauer’s perception that all our endeavours are ultimately vain. Aschenbach’s fate is thus far less ironic—and far more tragic—than we tend to think.

Luchino Visconti’s gorgeous 1971 film adaptation doesn’t do these issues much justice. Visconti splices the narrative with flashbacks in which, far from being respected as a national laureate, an enfeebled Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde, here remade as a composer) is booed out of the concert hall and reduced to tears by a shouty disciple. In Benjamin Britten’s more skilful hands the story becomes a parable of sexual repression. As one of Britten’s heroic victims, Aschenbach attains a sublimity of stature quite inaccessible to a pouting Bogarde. Lurking in Britten’s 1973 opera is the Nietzschean view of the ascetic ideal as a species of self-mutilation. Aschenbach is deformed by the social pressures which have forced him to disown his sexuality, which, when it inevitably reasserts itself, destroys him. Like one of Euripides’ Bacchae, he surrenders—”drunken, powerless / Sunk in the bliss of madness”—to the Dionysian spell. This reading has a special resonance given Mann’s own weakness for “hübsche Jungen” (pretty boys), compassionately tolerated by his magnificent wife Katia.

But Kitcher is surely right to recall us to Mann’s “entangling of […] homoerotic desires with aesthetic fulfilment.” In the Phaedrus, Plato describes the perception of beauty as a means of apprehending the ideal world of the “Forms”, thereby associating it with the most fundamental values—Justice, Knowledge, the Good, and so on. This illumination is most accessible in the form of a beautiful young man, precisely because the appreciation thereof is not reducible to physical satisfaction. Indeed, in the Symposium, the lover thus awakened by contemplation of the beloved is expected to guide the boy’s formation of character and intellect. Accordingly their relationship—while unquestionably erotic—is governed by a certain discipline.

Aschenbach concludes that this Socratic idyll is a mirage, for, in Kitcher’s crisp phrase, “it is vulnerable to the very beauty it celebrates.” Far from enhancing his moral judgment, Aschenbach’s desire has warped it, not because it has made him into a predator (he is no such thing), but because, out of a selfish wish not to lose sight of Tadzio, he has neglected to warn his family of the cholera epidemic engulfing Venice. His climactic collapse at the fountain, devastated by the restless pursuit of the boy through the labyrinthine calli and canali, is narrated with sardonic exultation. Here, Mann knowingly informs us, is the “artist who had achieved dignity”.

And yet Kitcher urges us not to overlook the final chapter, a sort of ‘coda’ in which the narrator resumes a tone of respect. At the fountain, Aschenbach had despaired of striving for greatness; on the beach, he is reconciled to finitude. His earlier intimations of mortality (in the cemetery, on the steamship, in the gondola) had been menacing; now Tadzio, a kindly Hermes Psychopompos, points suggestively out towards the Elysian fields of the Adriatic. Aschenbach has transcended Schopenhauer’s horror of ultimate futility and Nietzsche’s too hasty depreciation of discipline. The value of Aschenbach’s life and work is not negated by their inevitable incompleteness. Dionysus may have knocked him off his pedestal, but in doing so he had opened up an unsuspected perspective.

This, Kitcher believes, is exactly what literature can do for philosophy. And it is not to devalue less philosophical fiction. Kitcher, whose lively, unaffected culture breathes from every page, nowhere contests the value of literature as literature. What he does is expose the shallowness of the kind of thing T.S. Eliot said about Shakespeare, that “the philosophy behind it is not great.” As if reading Shakespeare might not influence our idea of great philosophy.

The distaste for “philosophy by showing”, Kitcher maintains, rests tacitly on a foundationalist epistemology which few would endorse if made explicit. He quotes Otto Neurath’s famous conceit:

We are like sailors who, on the open sea, must reconstruct their ship, but are never able to start afresh from the bottom.

Philosophical analysis presupposes a language in which premises can be clearly stated. But given that language is contingent, there is philosophical work to be done in the reflective criticism of the idioms and concepts which history has bequeathed us. And this, Kitcher suggests, is best performed by literature—literature, like Mann’s, which prises open our eyes to possibility.

Fergus McGhee is reading for a second BA in English at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.