Mann's novella Death in Venice starts out very dry, going on and on about the ascetic life of a famed Munich novelist named Gustav von Aschenbach. His hero is the steadfast artist who toils to the brink of exhaustion for his craft and conceals his inner struggle behind a cool, composed facade. Literature is great not because of the beauty of its prose but because of how its readers relate to it. Its author must speak for the men of his times and express, through his works, a natural affinity with his contemporaries. Aschenbach's books appeal to the bureaucrats and businessmen who labor incessantly at their jobs and yet must maintain a respectable bourgeois appearance at all times. The figure of Saint Sebastian is, in Aschenbach's mind, the most beautiful image of all: it depicts a man who gladly suffers for his beliefs and who perseveres through the most painful torture.
Saint Sebastian is also considered by many to be an LGBT icon.
Upon traveling to Venice, however, Aschenbach is seized by the erotic desire for an aristocratic Polish boy named Tadzio who is staying with his family at the same hotel. Aschenbach never actually speaks to Tadzio or interacts with him in any way. He watches his muse from the distance, seeing him as the personification of the Platonic ideal of a transcendent, universal beauty of which all things on Earth are but faint copies. The heavens open, a light shines down, and the ancient gods enchant, beguile, and torment him. Having dedicated his art to the constrained and the conservative, having disdained the bohemian fascination with the outcast and debased, having been lauded by schoolteachers and heads of state, Aschenbach finds everything he has believed in thrown into a gloriously delirious flux.
Passion is like crime: it does not thrive on the established order and the common round; it welcomes every blow dealth the bourgeois structure, every weakening of the social fabric, because therein it feels a sure hope of its own advantage.Aschenbach ends up going a little bit crazy. All public honor laid at the artist's feet, he concludes, is but a farcical homage to appearances. It is absurdity at its finest. Echoing Plato's views on the poets, as laid out in The Republic (he sought to ban them), Aschenbach admits that art (be it visual or literary) is dangerous, as the idolization of form is the very spirit of Dionysus himself. Art destroys all restraints, and the mad piper - the celebration of the material, of the flesh, of the here-and-now - leads art's devotees to the Pit itself. And yet, objective knowledge only makes it worse by encouraging tolerance and forgiveness in its drive to understand all things. Artists must dedicate themselves to beauty and beauty only. But that is a risky endeavor.
At one point, Aschenbach is awakened from a dream/nightmare in which he is drawn into a violent bacchanalian orgy despite his initial fear. It is an extreme metaphor, but the awakening of homosexual longing in a respectable citizen of the early twentieth century is a pretty frightening, anti-social experience. Of course, Aschenbach's obsession is also pedophiliac - Tadzio is a fourteen-year-old boy after all. Today we strive to be accepting of the LGBT community. If Tadzio was another man, a modern reader would likely feel sympathy where a reader of Mann's time would feel disgust. But I think the NAMBLA angle allows us to still experience aversion, which is probably what Mann intended (although in his time this would have been accomplished with homosexuality alone). Hyperbole about the perils of art aside, Aschenbach's desires really are dangerous. No one in their right mind can blame Tadzio's family for eventually becoming uneasy whenever their son is around that creepy old guy who's always watching and stalking him. Heck, they should've freaked out more.
To the ancient Greeks, however, the love between a boy and an older male teacher was the sexual paragon. In his previous struggles to reconcile art and social convention, Aschenbach may be demonstrating the impossibility of applying Classical values to the twentieth century. I think his death on the very last page is similar to Edna's suicide at the end of Kate Chopin's The Awakening (written in roughly the same time period). The protagonist has achieved a new inner awareness and subsequently rejected social norms. But what has replaced them is transgressive, subversive, or, in Aschenbach's case, threatening. Okay, so now what?
I sure wouldn't want Aschenbach on the loose.
I actually found this little story to be an indirect commentary on one of the traditional views of women in Western culture - as idealized and exalted, but ultimately dehumanized, beauty. Women, like Tadzio, have often been mere symbols worshiped from afar but never interacted with as fully realized individuals. (Aschenbach makes it quite clear that to actually get to know Tadzio would spoil the illusion of perfection, since, of course, a Platonic ideal cannot actually exist in humanity's material world - it is supposed to be beyond it.) She is the subject of poems, prose, and painting, but never the creator. She is the passive recipient of inspired praise and burning passion but never the active agent exploring and expressing her own desires. True, the ancient Greeks, whose philosophy and mythology Mann heavily draws upon, often saw beauty as a prime virtue and an end in and of itself. But in reality, the pedestal is a cold, lonely place.