Book entry: Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann
Girls and boys, I read “Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann and I got Stendhal syndrome. Sweats, chills, palpitations, dizziness, but also euphoria and “heavenly sensations”. These contradictory symptoms were described by the French writer Henri-Marie Beyle, known as Stendhal, author of the classic “The Red and the Black”, when he reported what he felt in front of the frescoes of Giotto in the Basilica of Santa Croce, in Florence.
Thomas Mann’s masterpiece, one of the most perfect examples of the novel genre in universal literature, continues to be widely read and often misunderstood or superficially interpreted. Starring the discreet and respectable middle-aged writer Gustav Von Aschenbach, who arrives in Venice on medical advice and ends up fatally enchanted by the disturbing beauty of a Polish teenager named Tadzio, this tragedy has many layers of interpretation. For some, it is an explicit excuse for pederasty. Others see it as a warning about the dangers of lust as opposed to orderly civic morality. There is no shortage of people who see the soap opera as a Christian parable about demonic temptation. The simplest think it’s just an over-the-top flowery tale of an old bastard chasing a brand new one. The fact is that these interpretations are too basic. I wouldn’t need a Thomas Mann to write “Death in Venice” if that was all it was.
I interpret “Death in Venice” as a narrative treatise on the destructive power of beauty on aesthetically sensitive people. Although Stendhal syndrome was only recorded in the medical literature by the Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini in 1979, it is very likely that Thomas Mann knew Stendhal’s original text. Over the centuries, thousands of reports of people being physically affected by “great beauty” can be counted. In Florence, in Venice, in Paris, in Rome, in Barcelona, in Portugal and many other places; inside museums, in concert halls, in front of majestic architecture or even in the solitude of their homes, with books in their hands. Don’t worry, it’s not contagious. It would be good if it was. Maybe the world had a chance against barbarism.
Perhaps inadvertently, Thomas Mann made Gustav Von Aschenbach a victim of Stendhal syndrome at an extreme stage. Tragically, the object of her charm was not a poem, not a painting, music or sculpture, but a human being. The fact that the main character in the book is an artist, per definition one whose profession is the pursuit and production of beauty only increased his vulnerability. Detail that explains but does not justify its weakness.
Affected by the “great beauty”, Gustav Von Aschenbach could not resist the siren song and succumbed. Cholera, the disease that officially killed him, was no more deadly than the loss of his identity. As he lay dead on the beach, pathetically made up like a dandy, the hitherto discreet and respectable writer paid the price for looking into the abyss and looking back into the abyss. “What beautiful eyes!” Von Aschenbach must have thought.
Order: Death in Venice / Tonio Kröeger
Author: Thomas Mann
Translation: Herbert Caro and Mario Luiz Frungillo
Publisher: Companhia das Letras