Mar 062010



In the dizzying euphoria of the days after packet-submission, I managed to read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, in between bouts of endless movie watching, napping and otherwise avoiding anything to do with writing.   Now that I’ve come back from the three day hiatus, and finished Death in Venice, (incidentally, my first time reading it, one of the many holes in my literary education) it seems appropriate to start with a quote from Douglas Glover’s essay “The Familiar Dead”:

To put it simply, the universal plot reads: Life is never what it seems, truth is always other (or the Other).   (Notes Home from a Prodigal Son)

Clearly, one aspect of Mann’s novella is the other, manifest in Aschenbach’s obsession with the young Polish boy, Tadzio.  Aschenbach goes to Venice for a summer holiday, and falls in love—I don’t think that’s over-stated—with this teenage boy.  The saddest part of this story exists in the absolute lack of contact between the old man and the young boy.  We see the story only as an incredible yearning from Aschenbach toward the boy, and the odd glances between the two.  I kept hoping that they would speak, that some contact would be made.  Yet it never happens, and the other in this story remains exactly that.  The line is never crossed.

Inspiration to read Mann’s book came after reading Christopher Merrill’s essay “Regained Detachment: On Thomas Mann, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the New World Order.”  Merrill is travelling in Slovenia around the time of the war that ripped the neighboring countries apart.  He is on his way to Venice for an arts festival, and is excited to meet Marquez.  He and a Slovenian friend (a radio journalist who will interview Marquez) pick Marquez up at the hotel, and drive him to the hotel where the conference is being held, the same hotel where Aschenbach fell in love with Tadzio.  But Marquez is insulted by something, by Merrill’s presence it seems, and he jumps out of the car, cancelling the interview, stating, “I hate Americans.  No interview.”

The refusal to make contact again, this time by the grand author, reminds me again how wide the gap can be between self and other.   The essay concludes by Merrill explaining how none of the eminent figures gathered in Venice even discuss the genocide going on just a few hundred miles away.

I think of Aschenbach going to his grave with his love un-stated, with the gap between his self and the other uncrossed.  Is there a sadder thing in life?  It was much less satisfying to me than, say, Cortazar’s story, “Axolotl”, which sees a man turn into a salamander.  The self and the other completely fused.  Maybe that takes it too far…we can’t become salamanders, no matter how much we might want to, but we could, I think, at least make contact.  We could at least reach out.  I am reminded again, of Toni Morrison’s Nobel acceptance speech.  Some young boys approach an old, blind woman with a riddle.  They say they have a bird in their hand, and ask her if it is alive or dead.  Because the woman can’t see, the boys have tricked her.  If the bird is alive, and she says so, they will kill it.   The speech (and the riddle) goes on to play off this paradoxical situation, and the blind woman tries to figure out the trap.  She chooses silence, and we initially sympathize with the blind woman, until one of the boys speaks.  The silence is no solution.  He says:

“Is there no speech,” they ask her, “no words you can give us that helps us break through your dossier of failures? through the education you just given us is no education at all because we are paying close attention to what you have done as well as to what you have said?  to the barrier you have erected between generosity and wisdom?

We have no bird in our hands, living or dead.  We have only you and our important question.  Is the nothing in our hands something  you could not bear to contemplate, to even guess?  Don’t you remember being young, when language was magic without meaning?  When what you could say, would not mean?  When the invisible was what the imagination strove to see?  When questions and demands for answers burned so brightly you trembled with fury at not knowing?…

…Is there no context for our lives?  No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong?  You are an adult.  The old one, the wise one.  Stop thinking about saving your face.  Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world.  Make up a story.  Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created….For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light…Tell us what it is to be a woman so that we may know what it is to be a man.  What moves at the margin.

Aschenbach refused to risk his ‘name in the street’, and refused to cross the line, and his love, his obsession, became a misguided question.  I wish he had spoken to Tadzio, even just once.  Garcia Marquez dismissed Merrill with a stereotype, with a generalized dismissal that spoke to nothing but a dossier of failure.

I guess it’s time to get back to the writing now.

— Richard Farrell



  2 Responses to “Death in Venice: Nonfiction — Richard Farrell”

  1. I’m with you, Rich – I took the weekend off from writing, instead catching some welcome sun with my wife, baby, and dog and indulging in Montaigne’s 60-page “On Some Verses of Virgil.” I don’t have nearly as erudite a response as Rich has to Mann, Garcia, Marquez, and the notion of self, so I’ll just say that both Rich and Montaigne make literary conversation seem so easy.

  2. Rich,

    Very nice, and you’ve got me thinking in many different directions.

    I am reminded of Chinua Achebe’s essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” his complaint about the stereotyping of Africans, the utter lack of knowledge, of broaching the other culture. Note that Africans never speak in the novella, except to tell us that Kurtz is dead.

    I still love Heart of Darkness, and for me it is one of the most damning indictments of a corrupt civilization. I once had the joy of teaching it to a class that had an African American and a woman who grew up in Nigeria. Both could take the novel on its own terms as well as give Achebe’s criticism heartfelt appreciation. They did bridge the gap and spoke up.

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