Thomas Mann's Death in Venice is often regard as the first major Gay novel but to categorize this fascinating story in such a manner significantly limits its merits. The novel may contain homosexual love affair but it is certainly a lot larger than that. It explores the psychological influences of a magical city on a person who is running away from himself-of how forbidden love can transform the entire personality and soul and how despite being wise and sensible, we deliberately become a victim of false enticement.
Death in Venice was originally written in German but it has been widely translated into different languages, which says a great deal about the popularity of this work. It is only wise then to study the deeper messages of this novel and not label it as a gay work. Homosexuality may be one of the elements but it is certainly not the sole topic of discussion in Death in Venice. It is essentially about becoming victim of 'love' and getting lost in the labyrinth of deceit and temptation that is so powerfully alluring that one the protagonist loses grip on his senses and falls into the death-trap.
Death in Venice is therefore a story about a fatal journey from north to south undertaken by German writer Gustav von Aschenbach, who falls in love with a teenage boy Tadzio. This boy represents everything that later causes death of the protagonist such as deceit, fascination, blind passion and obsession. In fact this boy represents the labyrinth that Gustav loses himself in and goes deep into. Before we start discussing this labyrinth, it would be best to learn a little about the things that provided inspiration for this novel. In 1940, Mann discussed his journey to Venice in 1911 during his address at Princeton. In this address 'On Myself', he made it clear that it was this trip that left an indelible impression on his mind and thus everything and every person in his novel was somehow inspired by the people and things he had seen during this journey: "not a single feature was invention: the suspicious gondolier, the boy Tadzio and his family - everything was real, needed only to be put in the story" (148).
The character of Tadzio was also inspired by "an extremely attractive boy of about thirteen...whose appearance captivated my husband"- his wife recalled. (De Mendelssohn 871). Apart from the models, the entire ambience of Venice and plot of the story was also the result of inspiration. For example the plot was inspired by Mann's deep study of Goethe's life where he learned that at a very late stage in his life, Goethe had fallen in love with a young teenage girl. Some believe that Gustav Mahler served as inspiration for the character of Aschenbach, however nothing can be said with certainty in this regard because available sources have remained silent on this topic.
The alluring beauty of Venice and its nightlife and its ability to trap one's senses were inspired by the travelogues of Goethe where he noted, "I have often sighed longingly for solitude, and now I can really enjoy it.... Perhaps there is only one person in Venice that knows me, and we shall not soon meet.... Toward evening, again without a guide, I lost my way.... I tried to find my way out of this labyrinth without asking anyone.... Finally one does disentangle oneself, but it is an incredible maze..." (56-60). Mann agreed with Goethe where Venice was concerned and this laid the foundation of the labyrinth that we shall discuss shortly. In a letter written to his children in 1932, Mann had this to say bout Venice: "You mention that [Venice] must have been lovely in the middle of the last century. But Platen was already saying: "All that is left of Venice lies in the land of dreams." Nevertheless, he passionately loved it the way it was, even as Byron did, as Nietzsche did later.... For certain people, there is a special melancholia associated with the name Venice. It is...nowadays a spiritually rather corrupt and stale atmosphere...but still my heart would be pounding if I were there again." (Letters 187)
So spiritual corrupt that atmosphere must have been because the enigma of the place and the fascination that it generated in Gustav proved fatal for his soul and his senses. He lost himself in the labyrinth of deceit and forbidden attractions, which had a profound impact on his mind. Venice is known for its magical appeal that entices travelers and might prove fatal for some. The labyrinth that we are talking about is purely intangible trap but it is based on the real labyrinth of alleys and bridges in Venice where you might lose yourself physically if not spiritually or emotionally. As August von Platen's wrote about Venice in one of his Venetian sonnets -"This labyrinth of bridges and alleyways, A thousand fold into each other they wind. How will I ever be able to find a path which will lead me through this great maze?" (51)
Mann's Death in Venice recreates the same labyrinth but more on philosophical and psychological lines that helps in explaining why a person like Gustav could become a victim of false appeal and forbidden love. Why he lost his senses when all he wanted was to unwind in the relaxed atmosphere of the south? Death in Venice represents the fatal maze that can so easily trap northern travelers. Penelope Reed Doob in her book 'The Idea of the Labyrinth from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages' describes a labyrinth in a way that helps in understanding the metaphorical labyrinth in Death in Venice. She writes:
First, the labyrinth is a miraculous work of art, a masterpiece of master architects....Second, the very intricacy that makes the maze an architectural wonder as an artifact renders it almost incomprehensible as a process experienced by the disoriented wanderer.... This characteristic ambiguity and convertibility of the maze, perceived as an inextricable prison one moment and as great art the next, is often encountered in later labyrinthine art and metaphor. In short, the maze is an embodiment of contraries - art and chaos, comprehensible artifact and inescapable experience, pleasure and terror.... Darkness and noise, concomitants of chaos, recur in later labyrinths. So too with some of the maze's functions: as tomb (later associations will be with death or with hell)...as a place of worship or judgment...as a place requiring a guide...as a fitting habitat for monsters...as an image of deceptiveness.... "(24-25)
Gustav Aschenbach begins his journey towards South, as he believes he needs to escape his everyday routine and circumstances. He is both physically and spiritually tired and needs to renew his spirits- "three or four weeks of lotus-eating...in the lovely south" (8). Though he goes to Venice seeking renewal of his spirits, once there, he realizes that his might become an impossible task. Venice appeared threatening with its mazes that offered every visitor a chance to lose and forget himself. But this opportunity was aggressively intimidating because visitors felt that once they succumb to the numerous charms of Venice, they might never recover. Still Gustav cannot resist losing himself in the metaphorical labyrinth of temptation despite his numerous attempts to hold on to his senses and rationalize his infatuation for the Polish boy: "What discipline, what precision of thought were expressed by the tense youthful perfection of this form! And yet the pure, strong will which had labored in darkness and succeeded in bringing this godlike work of art to the light of day - was it not known to him, the artist?" (44).
But his rationalization attempts fail when he finally succumbs to the charms of the Polish boy and becomes a willing victim of "the labyrinth...this fair frailty that fawned and betrayed, half fairy-tale, half snare..." (55-56). This surrender of soul and senses is followed by an obsessive, senseless and even humiliating chase of Tadzio: "labyrinthine little streets, squares, canals, and bridges, each one so like the next, at length made him quite lose his bearings...all his care was not to lose sight of the figure after which he thirsted" (70) His pursuit of Tadzio should not be seen as a homosexual chase of an willing beloved but instead as an any man's pursuit of that one elusive person or object that so becomes his obsession. The chase then takes him on whirlwind tour of the enigmatic maze from where release cannot be obtained from death alone.
It is extremely important to ponder this aspect of the forbidden love depicted in Death in Venice because it is our inability to understand the real significance and meaning of the existence Polish youth that resulted in the novel being called a gay work. Tadzio should be seen as a genderless figure as he is described as "the blue network of veins suggested that the body was formed of some stuff more transparent than mere flesh" (44). This suggests that…