Friday, October 08, 2010


Thomas Mann set out to write a short novel about "passion as confusion and degradation".

The result was Death in Venice, a book which raises age old questions about the difference between love and lust, about forbidden love and about what is normal. It is not a book for narrow minded philistines, or is it?


Let us consider a variety of attitudes towards sex.

In 16th Century England, 13 year-old Elisabeth Ramsbotham complained that her 11 year-old husband, John Bridge, had not yet deflowered her.

In my humble opinion, eleven may be a bit too young to understand fully the deeper elements of love and marriage.

Among bonobo apes, which are reputed to be jolly and sociable creatures, sex takes place between males and males, between females and females, between males and females, and between adults and children.

Bonobos, according to recent research, may be closer to us than chimps; bonobos share 98% of our genetic profile.

Among female couples, genito-genital rubbing takes place. Male bonobos stand back to back, one male rubbing his scrotum against the buttocks of another.

Sexual activity among bonobos is casual and relaxed and seems to be the bonobos' way of avoiding conflict. Whereas chimps sometimes kill each other; bonobos kiss and make up after they've had a tiff.

Some final points on bonobos: they engage in sex only occasionaly, and copulation on average lasts only 13 seconds.

What do I think? I'm worried about the fact that bonobos appear not to use condoms; but perhaps there would be fewer wars if humans adopted some of the bonobo ideas (Imagine Ariel Sharon and Yassar Arafat..... kissing and making up.)

Another point is that bonobos may be close to us genetically, but they don't have to worry about all the nastier side of human life from religious fanaticism to child prostitution.

For the Buddhists, all visual attraction is the reaction of the lower self.

Fleshly charm does not last and is in a sense unreal.

In other words, you don't need a girl/boyfriend; and the girl/boyfriend's sexiness is a bit of an illusion.

However, according to the Buddhists, avoiding sex, while continuing to think foul thoughts, is not good. Better to obtain physical outlet, while thinking wholesome thoughts.

You want my opinion? It could take several lifetimes to achieve Nirvana; and not all Buddhist Thais have yet managed to conquer fleshy desires.

On the other hand, I have a strong suspicion Buddha got it right about sexual attraction.

In The Symposium the argument from Plato/Socrates is that beauty of the soul is more important than beauty of the body.

What we should be seeking is beauty that is eternal and absolute. If we can manage to recognise divine beauty, then we will act morally, and become immortal.

My immediate thought is that Socrates may well be correct. We should love the beauty of the soul and we should love all the world's souls, not just one particular one that turns us on temporarily.

But, did not Socrates also say: "as wolves for lambs, so lovers lust for boys," and did he not suggest that beauty of the body is easier to understand than beauty of the soul?

Ideas about sex certainly vary according to time and place.

In 1911, a world-famous 36 year-old author, on holiday in Venice with his wife, fell in love with an aristocratic 10 year-old Polish boy called Wladyslaw Moes. Why did this author's work sell so many millions of copies world-wide?

"Men," wrote this 36 year-old author, "do not know why they award fame to one work rather than another. Without being in the faintest connoiseurs, they think to justify the warmth of their commendations by discovering in it a hundred virtues, whereas the real ground of their applause is inexplicable - it is sympathy." In other words, the author's readers sympathised either with the author's philosophy, or, with his sexual tastes!

In countries from Thailand to Belgium there have been well reported cases of wicked child abuse, and this set me wondering if there could be such a person as a 'good' paedophile. (Child abuse I take to mean things like the rape and torture of children. A paedophile I define as someone who finds that some under sixteen year-olds are sexually attractive.)

A 'good' paedophile would be one who understands the difference between 'love' and 'lust' and who follows the path of love rather than lust. The path of love is one which may involve self-sacrifice; it is the path followed by someone like Mother Theresa.

I thought it was time to write a review about a famous and respected person who was 'very fond' of children. Hans Christian Andersen? Enid Blyton? Mark Twain? Leo Tolstoy? Andre Gide? J M Barrie? Alexander the Great? Benjamin Britten? L S Lowrey? Laurie Lee? Dante? Edgar Allan Poe? Baden Powell? John Ruskin? T H White? Wilfred Owen? General Montgomery?

The most 'respectable' figure I could think of was the German author Thomas Mann, born 1875, author of The Magic Mountain and DEATH IN VENICE. (In any case, I struggled to understand Mann at school, so thought maybe it was time to have another go.)


Thomas Mann was married, produced many children, and was considered to be ultra-respectable. His novels were best sellers, won him a Nobel Prize, and made him extremely rich and famous. When Mann came to live in America in the 1930's, Time and Life magazines welcomed Mann as "the greatest living author." Mann was the 'good' German who had begun attacking the Nazis as early as 1921 and who was among the first to draw attention to the systematic extermination of the Jews. President Roosevelt considered naming Mann the head of postwar Germany. (The best biography of Mann is "Thomas Mann: Ero s and Literature", by Anthony Heilbut, published by Macmillan. Very witty and entertaining.)

When he was 14, Mann fell in love with a classmate, Armin Martens. In his popular 1903 masterpiece, 'Tonio Kroger', Mann describes one schoolboy's love for another- shy awkward Tonio's platonic love for handsome Hans Hansen. Tonio eventually realises that love causes "sadness and humiliation" and that he must transform his energies into literature. Mann saw himself as Tonio.

Mann was aware that German culture was full of forms of love of a Greco-Roman type. Schiller loved young Goethe; Goethe wrote to von Herder: "Be my Socrates. Let me be your Alcibiades." Schubert, Frederick the Great and even Bismarck were considered by many to be less than thoroughly heterosexual. Nietzsche was fond of Wagner; Wagner spread the word that Nietzsche's problems were due in part to pederasty.

In an 1896 letter, a rather tense and neurotic Mann, aged 20, described a trip to Naples: "Here and there, among a thousand peddlers, are sly hissing dealers who urge you to come along with them to allegedly 'very beautiful' girls, and not only girls....They don't know that you have almost resolved to eat nothing but rice just to escape from sexuality."

It seems that at this point in time Mann was probably resisting Dionysian desires and instead using his urges to inspire great literature. Mann considered that the sexual urge was "the essence of the creative artist." Life could also be easier if one avoided sex? The heroes of Mann's novels were often men who felt an "impotent, sensual hatred" for the beautiful boys or girls who destroyed their peace of mind.

'Buddenbrooks', Mann's first magnum opus, was published when Mann was in his early twenties, and it sold millions throughout the world. This wildly popular 'soap opera' about a middle class Ge rman family, was based partly on Mann's own relatives. One of the Buddenbrooks, a male called Hanno, loves a male called Count Kai; but this homosexual love is somewhat disguised, partly by Mann's 'distinguished' language. In Buddenbrooks there is a brief interest in 'religion' of a Buddhist sort. Thomas Buddenbrooks picks up a volume by Schopenhauer about the 'indestructibility of our essence.' Thomas Buddenbrooks sees death as 'a great joy...a return from an unspeakably painful wandering.' Sometimes Mann found life unspeakably painful.

In 1899 Mann met Paul Ehrenberg, aged 23, fell in love with him, and became seriously depressed. Many years later, while reading Gore Vidal's 'The City and the Pillar', Mann wondered how one could sleep with a man; so Mann's relationship with Ehrenberg was presumably platonic. However, Mann found Vidal's description of teenage sex "glorious."

Mann was full of longing and envy. Mann sometimes wondered if he should try to be as free as a gypsy and enjoy simple warm heartfelt feelings. The problem was that to Mann, "warm heartfelt feeling is often banal and useless; only the irritations and frigid ecstasies of a corrupted nervous system can produce art."

In 1903 Mann met 20 year-old Katia Pringsheim, an intelligent girl of boyish appearance, who happened to have a handsome twin brother called Klaus. Mann referred to Katia as "the twin sister of an almost equally pretty fellow." In 1905 Mann, aged 29, married Katia.

Within a month of his marriage Mann wrote a story about a married Schiller's "love for Goethe". Mann also began plotting a story, never completed, which would include Schopenhauer's (slightly Buddhist) idea that life, with all its sensual desires, is an illusion.

In 1906 Armin Martens, whom Mann had loved at the age of 14, died penniless in Africa, aged 29. Mann, suffering from depression, entered a sanatorium to recover. 1908 saw the trial in Germany of a journalist who had exposed a homosexual clique at the court of the Kaiser. This so-called Eulenburg case ruined many wealthy and powerful Germans. Mann applauded the "outing".

Thomas Mann's wife Katia recalls an actual holiday in Venice and relates that "In the dining-room, on the very first day, we saw the Polish family, which looked exactly the way my husband described them... the very charming, beautiful boy of about 13 was wearing a sailor suit ... He caught my husband's attention immediately. This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach."


In 1910, Mann attended the premiere of Mahler's Eighth Symphony, and in seeing the face of Mahler, saw the face that would inspire Aschenbach, the central character in Death in Venice.

But Death in Venice, one of the great classics of world literature, is about Thomas Mann and Mann's love for a 10 year-old boy. In real life, 36 year-old Mann, on holiday in Venice with his wife, fell in love with an aristocratic 10 year-old Polish boy called Wladyslaw Moes, nicknamed Adzio. In the novella, von Aschenbach, a respectable writer in his fifties, falls for an aristocratic 14 year-old Polish boy called Tadzio.

Mann wrote: "Nothing is invented in Death in Venice...Tadzio...the cholera...the ballad singer...they were all there."

Wladyslaw/Adzio grew up ignorant of the fact that he had inspired Death in Venice. It was not until 1924 that one of Adzio's cousins read the novella and showed it to Adzio. Adzio was amused but "not terribly interested."

In Death in Venice, Mann describes Aschenbach watching a fight between Tadzio (Adzio) and his older friend Jaschiu (in real life, 10 year-old Jasio). After the film of Death in Venice was released, Jasio wrote to Adzio: "I don't remember being as cruel to you as Mann describes in the book." Adzio replied in a letter to Jasio: "I still remember the athletic wrestling which you always won; but the title of winner could only be gained after one's opponent was forced on his back. So no wonder I fought till I was flat out, which obviously struck Thomas Mann as cruelty on your part."

According to Gilbert Adair's excellent book "The Real Tadzio", published by the Short Book Company, Adzio was exactly 'the pretty, pampered darling' described in Mann's novella. Adzio was singled out for special treatment by his mother and sisters. Adzio had a punctured lung and was therefore slightly frail. Aschenbach noted that Tadzio's teeth were "imperfect, rather jagged and bluish, and without a healthy glaze."

Aschenbach thought, with a hint of rather disturbing gleefulness, that the boy "will most likely not live to grow old."

I can't imagine a bonobo thinking such an unwholesome thought.

According to Gilbert Adair, Mann was not the first writer to be attracted to Adzio.

"At a wedding of one of his aunts- for which, as garcon d'honneur, he was turned out in lace of a fetchingly creamy blanc d'ivoire- the six year-old Adzio caught the eye of Henryk Sienkiewicz, the ...Nobel Prize winning author of....Quo Vadis. Leaving the church in his landau, the doting Sienkiewicz insisted that the infant come perch upon his knees, only hurriedly to offload him when he discovered that his Tiepolesque seraph had peed down the leg of his morning suit."

Adzio seems to have been a bit of a flirt. While in Venice, he would chat up fruit sellers and charm them into giving him free fruit. Local fishermen would take him out on their boats and "he would court ... all the petting and fondling that he came in for."

One evening in the Hotel des Bains he held back until the other guests had taken their seats, and then "with his clustered blond ringlets and watery-blue eyes, he all but goose-stepped down the grand central staircase into the dining room...." 'Did everyone see me? Was everyone watching,' he asked his nurse.

Mann was watching. Adzio remembered one particular man staring at him wherever he went, "hovering always just out of sight as the Moeses ambled through the ci ty's Piranesian labyrinth of tourist-worn streets and dark sunless alleys and stairways..."

Adzio also remembered an especially strong stare from Mann when he and the great author shared the hotel lift.

"It's just another gentleman who likes me," Adzio would say to his nurse. According to Adair, "No one in those innocent, halcyon Edwardian days appears to have thought it worth advising him to steer clear of 'old men'."

And what did Mann's wife think? In her memoirs, Katia, a tolerant woman, remembers well that her husband was 'intrigued by the ten year-old boy.'

And what do I think? It would appear that Mann behaved mildly improperly, but that he did not descend into 'the abyss', and he did not apparently do Adzio any harm. He remained 'respectable'. Was he a 'good' paedophile? He was not wicked, but there was always a risk that his actions could have hurt both Katia and Adzio.

While writing Death in Venice, Mann read the Symposium, the Phaedrus and Plutarch's Erotikos, which concerned the love of boys by Greek men.


In the novella, Aschenbach/Mann is the cerebral, sexually repressed, politically conservative, writer who has achieved fame but whose writing lacks deep insight into the world of love and lust. In Venice he lets sensual beauty into his life and goes astray. He becomes a slave to desire, feels tortured by guilt, and cannot relax and enjoy his passions. And his "dignity is rescued only by ... Death." Mann is warning us to avoid extremes.

We learn at the start of the story that the ultra-respectable Aschenbach, has received a knighthood. In his home town of Munich he exchanges glances with a red haired stranger who symbolises corruption. Aschenbach has a vision of a tropical swamp with phalic looking palm trees "fat, swollen, thick with incredible bloom". Aschenbach, tired out by his work, is tempted to take a holiday in Italy.

"When one wanted to arrive overnight at the incomparable, the fabulous, the like-nothing-else-in-the-world, where was it one went?" On the boat to Venice, Aschenbach sees a crowd of young men. In the middle of the group is an old man, with his face made up in a failed and foolish attempt to make himself look as young as his companions. As Aschenbach is about to disembark, this old drunken man winks at Aschenbach and says to him, "Give her our love, will you, the p-pretty little dear." And later the writer will also try to make himself look younger for his pretty little dear.

Having arrived in the Hotel des Bains on the Venice Lido, Aschenbach surveys his fellow guests and his eyes fix on Tadzio. The boy is "long-haired...pale, with a sweet reserve, with clustering , honey-coloured ringlets... winning mouth, expression of pure and godlike serenity....of such unique personal charm...happy...a spoilt, exquisite air...He walked with extraordinary once dainty and proud...The head was poised like a flower...It was the head of Eros, with the yellowish bloom of Parian marble... " Mann is the master of this sort of description of the physically beautiful.

Aschenbach assumes "the patronizing air of the connoisseur to hide ... his ravishment over a masterpiece." One suspects that Mann/Aschenbach sees Tadzio not simply as representing 'beauty' but as something erotic. Mann gets away with his description of the 'sexy' boy by using fine language and by filling the novella with classical references. "In almost every artist nature is inborn a wanton and treacherous proneness to side with the beauty that breaks hearts...," writes Mann.

Aschenbach spends some time on the beach where "awnings of rust-coloured canvas spanned before the bathing-huts, under the ether's quivering silver-blue." At one point Aschenbach spies Tadzio glancing at a family from Russia, a country not loved by Poles. Tadzio "distorted his features in a spasm of angry disgust." Aschenbach is delighted at this "childish exhibition of fanaticism" which gives the god a human touch.

Later, Aschenbach watches Tadzio walking arm in arm with his young friend Jaschiu and at one point sees Jaschiu give Tadzio a kiss. Aschenbach crosses the "foul smelling lagoon" in order to explore the city but he finds the streets have a "hateful sultriness." The sirocco is making him feel old and feverish. He decides to leave Venice. Next morning at breakfast in the Hotel des Bains, Tadzio passes Aschenbach's table. Tadzio "modestly cast down his eyes...only to lift them again in that sweet way he had and direct his full soft gaze upon Aschenbach's face."

Aschenbach leaves the hotel and arrives at the railway station, but there is a problem; his luggage has been sent to the wrong destination. This gives Aschenbach the excuse he needs - to return to the Lido and to Tadzio. Aschenbach seems motivated more by lust than love.

Tadzio has "a sweetly idle, trifling life, of play and rest, of strolling, wading, digging, fishing, swimming, lying on the sand....The lad's foreign birth raised his speech to music; a wanton sun showered splendour on him, and the noble distances of the sea formed the background which set off his figure." Aschenbach notes "the fine down along the upper vertebrae...the delicate outlines of the ribs and the symmetry of the breast structure. His armpits were still as smooth as a statue's, smooth the glistening hollows behind the knees." Aschenbach begins to think of Plato, perhaps in order to persuade himself (or the reader) that this is about divine beauty and not sex. "The god, in order to make visible the spirit, avails himself of the forms and colours of human you th," muses Aschenbach.

One day Aschenbach sights Tadzio in front of him on his way to the beach. "Aschenbach felt quite simply a wish to overtake him, to address him and have the pleasure of his reply and answering look....The lovely youth moved at a loitering pace...and Aschenbach hastened his own step....Aschenbach all but put out his hand to lay it on shoulder or head, while his lips parted to utter a friendly salutation...he found his heart throbbing unpleasantly fast...he was suddenly panic-stricken....and abandoned his plan."

Aschenbach's life revolves around watching Tadzio. "It was a world possessed, peopled by Pan, that closed round the spellbound man and his doting heart conceived the most delicate fancies. When the sun was going down behind Venice, he would sometimes sit on a bench in the park and watch Tadzio, white clad, with gay-coloured sash, at play there on the rolled gravel with his ball; and at such times it was not Tadzio he saw, but Hyacinthus, doomed to die because two gods were rivals for his love....he watched the discus, guided by torturing jealousy, strike the beloved head; paled as he received the broken body in his arms..." Mann certainly understood the darker side of human life.

Tadzio and Aschenbach become fully aware of each other. Tadzio deliberately passes in front of Aschenbach's beach tent, "sometimes so unnecessarily close as to graze his table or chair.....Daily Aschenbach would wait for Tadzio. Then sometimes, on his approach, he would pretend to be preoccupied and let the charmer pass unregarded by. But sometimes he looked up, and their glances met; when that happened both were profoundly serious."

They flirt in silence. When by accident they nearly crash into each other, each one involuntarily smiles.

Aschenbach follows Tadzio to a church, where the boy is watching out for him. He pursues the boy in a gondola, not noticing the smirks of the gondolier.

At a musical event in the hotel gardens in the evening, Aschenbach finds Tadzio seeking him out and is struck by a feeling of both triumph and horror. The lead musician is a vulgar redhead, symbolising more corruption.

Next day Aschenbach is warned about the the dangers of cholera approaching Venice.

Aschenbach has a dream or sensual nightmare in which smooth skinned boys and shrieking women fondling snakes bow down to 'the stranger god.' There is an orgy of promiscuous embraces.

Should Aschenbach warn Tadzio's family about the cholera? Is Aschenbach motivated more by lust than love?


If you liked the Visconti film, you'll like the book. Mann is subtle, sensitive, intelligent, lyrical, ironical and profound. He understands the complexity of love: its pains , its joys, its deceptions, its beauty and its darker side. He is a literary genius.

Some critics might find the book lacks humour; some might find it too restrained. For example, Tadzio never breaks wind or picks his nose. But remember that in most of the serious literature of the early 1900's, people simply did not break wind or nose pick. And to write in 1911 about a man's love for a young boy was pretty damn daring. (Perhaps if Tadzio had broken wind, the spell would have been broken for Aschenbach, and he would have realised that Tadzio was just an ordinary boy?)

The novella Death in Venice was wildly popular with the public. During Mann's lifetime, it was published in twenty countries and in thirty seven editions. One suspects that its popularity was not based entirely on its classical references. Tadzio, like the cute boys in toothpaste commercials, turned many people on.

But was it, in Mann's words, a 'drunken song' or an 'ethical fable.' A few years after writing Death in venice, Mann confesses that the 'indecency' of some of Verlain 'e poems has shaken him and reminded him of the dangers of the abyss. Mann writes that all his life he has contemplated the nature of morality. (And history has taught him, he writes, that 'great moralists have mostly been great sinners also.' He refers to Dostoyevsky being a paedophile.) However, Mann hoped Death in Venice would not be seen simply as a morality tale. He rather liked the idea of its sexiness. Benjamin Britten's opera Death in Venice was certainly more about the beauty of young boys than it was about philosophy.

Anthony Heilbut writes, "Death in Venice can be read as a muffled plea for emancipation. At the very least, a drunken song offers an alternative to the extremes of chaste sublimation and insane orgy." I couldn't put it any better than that. Mann wanted a balance between sensuality and morality.

Mann, apparently, remained chaste, so far as small boys were concerned. He was unhappily stuck between two worlds: the world of the respectable bourgeois writer and the world of the decadent bohemian artist. Mann turned his lust into literature. But Mann would have liked, ideally, to have lived in a world like that of the sociable bonobo apes, where everything is natural and relaxed.

In Tonio Kroger, Mann quotes Tonio (Mann) as saying, "My deepest and secretest love belongs to the blond and blue-eyed, the fair and the living, the happy, lovely, and commonplace." Mann might have been happy being born with a mediocre brain, in some relaxed southern European town, where he would be one of the fair haired lads, like Armin Martens / Hans Hansen, and he would not have to worry about morality or about producing great art.

Mann remained the 'respected' and relatively 'good'writer/paedophile partly because he was a realist. He was aware that he was not an attractive figure, that homosexuality and pederasty were illegal in Germany, that venereal disea ses could kill, that respectability was usually important to him, that people could often behave like murderous chimps, that sexual love can bring unhappiness....He never made any great effort to try the Buddhist path, which might have rid him of his melancholy? Mann/Aschenbach came to understood all about 'lust', but did he understand 'love'?

Mann's brother, Heinrich, describes him as being incapable of imagining another person's existence. Mann's private diaries from 1918-21 reveal a man obsessed by his own feelings. He writes about his own insomnia, constipation and toothaches; he writes about his infatuations with beautiful youths he has glimpsed; and in 1918 he briefly writes about his incestuous feelings for his twelve year-old son Klaus.

Mann's eldest son Klaus chose a different path to that chosen by his father. Anthony Heilbut writes, "Klaus's youth coincided with the world's discovery of Youth...Bliss it may have been then to be alive, to prowl the world's capitals in pursuit of drugs and pretty boys, to party with Garbo and commune with Gide. He knew the addresses of each of the city's best-populated baths and enjoyed identifying the male prostitutes of Berlin as sons of Russian princes and Prussian generals." Klaus bravely opposed the Nazis and joined the US army to help fight Germany. He wrote "Mephisto"; he turned to drugs. In some senses Klaus opted partly for 'insane orgy' and, for whatever reasons, ended up committing suicide. (The Mann family were prone to melancholy).

Thomas Mann's eightieth year brought him Germany's highest honour, and honours and greetings from around the world, and also his decease.

"It seemed to him (Aschenbach) the pale and lovely Summoner (Tadzio) out there smiled at him and beckoned; as though with the hand he lifted from his hip, he pointed outward as he hovered on before into an immensity of richest expectation."



nobody said...

Hey Aang, no comments here I notice. Me, I thought this was really interesting, certainly at the base premise. I've had similar thoughts floating around in my head for a while now. Hopefully I'll be able to distil them into something and whack them on the blog. Sure enough a delicate touch is required. Anyway, thanks for this.



Anon said...

Germaine Greer has some interesting thoughts on this subject.

- Aangirfan

A13 said...

HI Aang, would you believe "death in venice" is on Today on the Free to air TV service here in OZ, at about Midday! I haven't yet seen it but i will now watch it. I thought you wrote about this and i was right, what an interesting review you have written, i now look forward to watching this movie. Cheers A13

Anonymous said...

Personally I find the novella rather unreadable, either in English (I have at least 3 translations), or in German (I do my best), but it's an interesting novel, and of course, he was a great writer.

Your article was very good though. An excellent analysis.

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