R. Gray
German 390/Comp. Lit. 396/ Engl 363/ CHID 498/JSIS 488/Lit 298

"Freud and the Literary Imagination"

Lecture Notes: Thomas Mann, Death in Venice

I. Background

A. Written 1911. Mann traveled to Venice from 26 May to 2 June 1911, accompanied by his wife Katia and his brother Heinrich. Just prior to leaving for Venice he got news of the death of the great Austrian composer Gustav Mahler on 18 May 1911. Many of the elements of the novella, including the bad weather, the cholera episode, the beautiful youth Tadzio, the gondolier, and the singer and his troupe, are based on the actual experiences of this trip.

B. Aschenbach's name.

1) Gustav taken from Gustav Mahler; Mahler and his death as part of the impulse behind Mann's work.

2) "Aschenbach" in German means "stream of ashes." 2 possible allusions:
a. ashes of death, as in ashes to ashes, dust to dust; name anticipates theme of death;
b. stream of ashes as an allusion to a volcanic eruption; this would point ahead to the eruption of the irrational, the id, out of the repression it suffers in Aschenbach’s strictly disciplined existence. Perhaps already in these implications of the name we have allusions to the union of Eros (repressed libidinal instinct) and Thanatos (drive toward death and self-dissolution).

C. Mann's conception of the artist. (See handout; to view handout, click here)

1. The contrast between Mann's and Kafka's conceptions of their creative impulses could hardly be greater. Mann sees in the artist the qualities of the soldier: discipline, organization, systematization, exactitude, steadfastness, courage.

2. Gustav von Aschenbach represents all these traits at the inception of the novella (see Death, pp. 1; 12; 14-15). Note the opposition between this conception of creativity and Freud's. Instead of spontaneity, impulse, imagination, fantasy, we have in Aschenbach reflection, reason, discipline, structure. Aschenbach's art seems to be based on mastery of the instincts; when he succumbs to instinct, he ceases to be an artist in this disciplined sense.

3. Mann emphasizes the coldness, the distance of the artist toward human beings. The artist seems to stand outside of life, for him, as someone standing on the outside looking in but not actually participating in the events of life. This distance also expresses itself in a kind of emotional alienation from the sense and sensibilities of "normal" human beings.

D. Mann was profoundly influenced by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche's primary aesthetic treatise, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (1872) postulated the existence of two distinct and opposing artistic tendencies, which Nietzsche associated with 2 different ancient gods, Apollo and Dionysus. Classical tragedy, Nietzsche proposed, operates through the union of these two principles, their synthesis.



God of sun, intellect

God of wine, intoxication



form, structure

chaos, infinity


community, masses


reckless abandonment







    1. Can we comprehend what happens to Aschenbach over the course of the novella as the movement from Apollinian control to Dionysian ecstasy and impulse?
    2. Can we give this development a Freudian spin? Aschenbach as repressed, as one who creates his art through the repression of instinct and impulse? His "perverse" love for Tadzio as the return of the repressed, the forceful eruption of the irrationality of beauty into the controlled and disciplined existence of the "soldierly" artist? Art as martyrdom?

II. General Observations about Death in Venice

A. The mythic/Classical dimension of Mann's text. The narrator comments that Aschenbach's days in Venice are "metamorphosed by myth" (p. 91). Is this true of Aschenbach's life in general, or at least of the narrative approach taken to his life?

1) Aschenbach's fate is repeatedly connected with various motifs drawn from Classical antiquity or Greek and Roman mythology; the fictional world is continually universalized, made more representative of human fate in general, by this appeal to mythic and Classical patterns.

2) This element also aligns Mann's technique with strategies Freud liked to employ in his own writings: the appeal to myth and Classical literature to elucidate and universalize psychoanalytic patterns and experiences (e.g., Oedipal complex).

3) Examples of mythic motifs:
Red-haired stranger at North Cemetery = devil = tempter (Death 3-5)
Gondolier = Charon, transporter of dead souls to the underworld (Death 37-38)
Goat-bearded man on the ship = satyr, attendant to god Dionysus (27; 31)
Tadzio = Spinario (Thorn-Puller) (45); Narcissus (95); Hyacinth (92)
Aschenbach = Saint Sebastian (16-17); Odysseus on his epic journey to return "home"
Plato's Phaedrus (83-85; 136-38)
Xenophon's Symposium (Critobulus, p. 59)

4) Tadzio is represented in terms of the stereotypical traits associated with Classical Greek conceptions of human physical beauty. He is compared with the bronze sculpture known as the "Spinario," or the "Boy with Thorn." (For a picture of this sculpture, click here.) This sculpture is one of the few large-scale bronzes from the Classical period that has survived. It is of Roman origin (from 1st century BC) based on a Greek original. During the Renaissance, it became a model for artists who sought to render the beauty of the human body. Thus Tadzio is associated not so much with a kind of perverse homoeroticism, but rather with Classical models of beauty. He is, as it were, Classical beauty incarnate, and it is as much this ideal of beauty, as the boy Tadzio himself, with which Aschenbach becomes enthralled. Tadzio represents, as it were, the real manifestation of the Platonic archetype of human beauty.

5) Semele and Zeus (84): Zeus fell in love with Semele, to the dismay of his wife Hera. Out of revenge, Hera deceived Semele into asking Zeus to appear to her in all his divine glory. Since Zeus had promised Semele that he would grant her every wish, he felt obliged to do this, knowing full well that his divine presence would kill Semele. She perished from his thunderbolts. But before she died, Zeus rescued their yet unborn child, the god Dionysus. Here is the allusion to Nietzsche's other deity.

6) Myth of Hyacinth as the central mythology of the text: Hyacinth was a beautiful youth loved simultaneously by two deities, Apollo and Zephyr. Apollo was so entranced by Hyacinth and his love for him that he abandoned all his duties: he stopped attending to the oracle in Delphi, of which he was in charge; he stopped playing his zither; he ceased to keep his weapon, the bow, at the ready. Out of jealousy, Zephyr picked up Apollo's discus, threw it at Hyacinth, and killed him. The Hyacinth flower is said to have grown up out of the blood of this youth. Aschenbach assumes the role of Apollo in this myth: he abandons his "duties" and succumbs to his rapture for Tadzio. Note the allusion here to Nietzsche's Apollo. For a rendering of Apollo in mourning at Hyacinth's death, "The Death of Hyacinthos" (1801), by the French painter Jean Broc (1771-1850), click here.

7) Aschenbach as St. Sebastian, a Christian martyr who allows his body to be tortured in the service of "spirit". For an image of St. Sebastian's martyrdom, painted by Fabrizio Boschi (1572-1642), click here. St. Sebastian lived during the time of the persecution of Christians, and although he himself was a Christian, he joined the Roman military. He advanced to the rank of Captain, and this allowed him to help protect the very Christians he was supposed to guard. When the Roman Emperor Diocletian discovered Sebastian's treason, he had him shot with arrows. Aschenbach, we might speculate, is a similar "soldier" whose martyrdom is a kind of sacrifice for art (rather than for Christianity). Parallel to Sebastian: both are outwardly soldiers who keep an inner secret, a secret related to "erotic" instincts in the larger sense. Both are punished when their secret is made known.

8) Plato's Phaedrus: Plato (Socrates) argues here that sensual beauty is the manifestation of archetypal, eternal form; thus, to succumb to sensual beauty, to fall in love, is to gain provisional entrance into the realm of disembodied form. Plato says that the soul "grows wings" and makes a first step toward its own dissolution into pure form--hence its ability to communicate in this state of loving self-abandonment with the eternal archetypes. Already in this conception, Eros and Death are fused.

9) Xenophon's Symposium: Socrates and Critobulus debate the nature of beauty. Socrates claims beauty only occurs in nature; Critobulus objects that human-made artifacts are also beautiful, and points to the synthesis of beauty and function. Socrates then asserts that if function is the defining trait of beauty, then his own notoriously ugly facial features represent the height of beauty, since their function is so superior. Socrates thereby wins the debate (but ironically undercuts his own initial position!), but when the audience is asked who in fact is more beautiful, Socrates or Critobulus, they vote for the latter (thereby reaffirming Socrates' initial position).

B. Tragedy-like Structure of the Novella

Text divided into five numbered, but unnamed chapters:

1) Relates events leading up to Aschenbach's inexplicable longing and his decision to make a journey (pp. 1-10).

2) Flashes back to give us Aschenbach's personal and family history and to provide us a thorough characterization (pp. 11-23).

3) Trip to Venice: up to the point at which Aschenbach decides to stay on in Venice despite the bad weather in order to be near Tadzio (pp. 25-74)

4) Details the growth and the culmination of Aschenbach's obsession with Tadzio, up to the point at which Tadzio smiles at him and Aschenbach responds by saying "I love you" (pp. 75-96).

5) Aschenbach's decline and demise; the first signs and rumors of the contagion beginning to grip Venice, ending with Aschenbach's death (pp. 97-142).

The novella is thus structured in parallel to the development of the classical tragedy: 5 "acts," beginning with an exposition, the "ascending action" laying out Aschenbach's role as a disciplined (Apollinian) artist, the culmination or denouement reached when he becomes acquainted with Tadzio, the descending action outlining Aschenbach's gradual succumbing to the enthrallment of Dionysian beauty, to love, intoxication, youth, the immoral; Aschenbach's self-abandonment and death.

C. Interpretation and Textual Analysis

1. Hypothesis: Death represents the tragedy of the Apollinian artist; the impossibility of a lifestyle, a creative ideology, or even a culture that is based on the principle of severe repression.

In Freudian terms, Aschenbach represents the hostility of civilization to the life of the instincts and the irrepressibility of instinctual drives: Eros and Thanatos in league with one another (as in Freud's theory of the instincts) cause the tragic demise of Aschenbach.

2. Aschenbach's character and personality as torn between opposing impulses.

Aschenbach's heritage: father versus mother (p. 12) = discipline versus "blood"; conscientiousness versus ardent impulse.
-- Aschenbach torn by opposed longings: for simplicity, the simple, the vast; but also for the unorganized, the chaotic, for "nothingness" (p. 55). Cf. Freud and the death instinct, the death drive.
-- See also Death p. 137: the discipline of Aschenbach's art gives way to intoxication, desire, emotional excess, the cult of the beautiful.
-- Aschenbach writes a treatise on "Art and Intellect" = indicates the dominance of reason over instinct in his art (11-12)
-- Aschenbach's self-discipline, from his father (14-15)
-- his ordered, strict daily routine (15)
-- his work ethic (15)
-- his "ego" and "European soul" that impose tasks on him, instill in him the "obligation to produce" (6).

3. Metaphor for Aschenbach = the clenched fist (13); Aschenbach always "up-tight," never relaxed, loose, calm, unpressured, etc.

See pp. 73-74, end of third "act,", where Aschenbach lets his hands hang down over the chair arms = symptomatic of the transformation he is undergoing, letting go, giving in to impulse, beauty, etc. The intrusion of the irrational, of longing, yearning, and death, into Aschenbach's Apollinian existence. See also his "dangling arms" at the end of chapter 4, when he confesses to Tadzio "I love you" (p. 96).

D. The Intrusion of the Irrational: The Return of the Repressed

1. The red-haired man at the cemetery (Death 3-5). Note the occurrence here of many prominent motifs:
a. red hair
b. snub nose
c. prominent Adam's apple
d. perpendicular furrows in forehead
e. straw hat
f. white teeth
Compare this passage with the description of the guitar-playing musician (Death 58-59). The same traits recur here.

2. The dandy on the boat (28-29; 35); he prefigures Aschenbach's own dandyfication, his turn to "cosmetic" means to recapture his youth.

3. Aschenbach's Dionysian vision and dream:
-- The stranger at the cemetery calls forth a vision of a tropical landscape; primeval wilderness, with phallic palm trees, lush vegetation, a crouching tiger, terror, and an indescribable longing. This stimulates Aschenbach's wish to take a journey (see Death 5-6).
-- The landscape of Aschenbach's vision is the home of Asiatic cholera, the disease to which he will succumb. Cf. Death 119-20, where this landscape is described in terms that repeat elements from Aschenbach's cemetery vision: the crouching tiger, swamps, bamboo thicket, lush vegetation.
-- The dream Aschenbach has on the night before he lets himself be "dandified" with hair-dye, make-up, etc. also repeats the motifs of this initial vision. This dream marks Aschenbach's ultimate loss of self-mastery. See Death 125-29.
-- This dream describes a Dionysian revelry, drunkenness, intoxication, dancing, music, the "uuu" sound of Tadzio's name, sexuality, lust, the "obscene symbol of the godhead," i.e. the phallus. This dreamt orgy ends with Aschenbach's awareness of "the debauchery and delirium of doom" (129). He succumbs to Eros, but simultaneously also to Thanatos, to death.
-- The leitmotivic structure of the text: from the musical practice of Richard Wagner. Also similar to the thematic texture of Freud’s dream-texts, the web of associations and connections that analysis turns out.

4. What does Aschenbach fall in love with in Tadzio? Youth? Beauty? Sensuality?
-- Tadzio as Narcissus; introduces problematic of self-love. > What Aschenbach loves in Tadzio is the repressed part of his own self; the side of his personality represented by his mother = sensuality, "music," ardor, impulsiveness.

E. Parallel between Individual and Cultural Neurosis

Aschenbach's psychological conflict, his repression, as representative of a conflict that exists on the level of Venetian society, as well. This is the final connection to the arguments Freud makes in Civilization and Its Discontents: Aschenbach's "neurosis" is shown to be a more general cultural neurosis. Cultural repressions are also exposed by the return of the repressed, the eruption of a hidden "truth" out into the light of day and consciousness.

1) Concluding chapter deals almost exclusively with Aschenbach's detective work as he tries to uncover the "secret" of Venice: the "truth" that cholera is sweeping through the city and reaching epidemic proportions.

2) This "truth" is systematically repressed, hidden, for the sake of profit: the fear of scaring away the tourists and their money.

3) Aschenbach senses a "morose satisfaction" in his agreement with this policy of deceit. See Death 100. The city's "nasty secret" is parallel to Aschenbach's own "nasty secret": his irrational lust for the youthful boy Tadzio as the representation of pure sensual beauty. The city keeps its secret just as long as Aschenbach keeps his. When Aschenbach abandons his secretiveness and openly displays his love for Tadzio, the city's secret is also divulged.

4) Aschenbach experiences a special satisfaction interrogating officials in Venice about the epidemic; he takes joy in the lies his queries force them to make (see Death 107-08) because this allows him to minimize his own feeling of guilt and shame by projecting it onto others.

5) It is right after Aschenbach hears the truth about the illness from the Englishman at the travel bureau that he has his Dionysian orgy dream: as the city's truth comes to light, so does the truth of Aschenbach's repressed desires come to consciousness.

6) Opening pages of novella make this parallel between the cultural psyche and Aschenbach's individual psyche apparent. The novella begins as Europe is threatened by an unnamed menace (p. 1), and the mysterious yearning that infects Aschenbach is associated with a contagion that anticipates the cholera epidemic.

III. Conclusions

A. Death as Dionysian tragedy that exposes fatal intertwining of Eros and Thanatos: to succumb to self-abandonment = to give in to death, to sacrifice the self as empirical individual.

B. Mann's novella plays out Freud's parallel between a cultural and individual character. Its critique: we are willing to sacrifice the common good and the interests of community and civilization for the benefit of our own self-interests. Yet this also ultimately leads to our demise. We can neither live with "civilization" (repression), nor without it (licentious abandonment to the instincts). This is precisely the paradox and conflict Freud points to in Civilization and Its Discontents.

C. Ultimate Irony: What Aschenbach as artist fails to accomplish, the fusion of Dionysian revelry with Apollinian form, Mann himself does accomplish in this novella. The passion and instinctual power the novella thematizes is held in check by the careful formal organization, the stylistic distance, the rational control of Mann's narrator.

IV. Death in Venice and Questions of Narrative

A. Narrative Style in Death in Venice

1) Aschenbach's style: struggle between will and fatigue remains disguised. (p.8) Mann's novella replicates this.
2) Aschenbach models his writing style on Tadzio's "physique" (85-86); classical model, sensuality translated into form.
3) Narrator identifies with Aschenbach; relates his intimate thoughts (52; 62).
4) Narrator criticizes Aschenbach when he is no longer capable of self-criticism. (p. 88)
5) Narrative imitates Aschenbach's moment of "objectivity" that "breaks free on occasion from intoxication and longing" (p. 117).

B. Retrospective: 4 Modes of "Narrating" the Psyche

1) Schnitzler's Gustl: interior monologue; psychic recording device; immediacy; dramatic irony (intimacy of thoughts exposed).

2) Kafka's "Country Doctor": first-person "autobiography"; self-narration; split between narrating and narrated self; conflicted self.

3) Kafka's "The Judgment": third-person narrative form, but first-person perspective; "narrated monologue"; "subjective" thoughts of character rendered in "objective" form; portrays and unmasks character's self-deceit; readers experience Georg's repression and its undoing.

4) Mann's Death in Venice: traditional third-person omniscient narrative; narrator stands outside the action, has privileged insight into Aschenbach's thoughts;
-- narrative extremes: a) merging with thought of character (narrator plays role of ego); b) standing outside and exercising critique of character (narrator in role of super-ego).
-- Mann's novella performs this dialectic of ego expression and its critique. Aschenbach's "discontent" as emblematic of repressive civilization; but Mann's novella offers resolution and balance.