Tuesday, November 03, 2015


(Perugino, 1495).

The Arts traditionally have fallen under the arms of Apollo. What he represents historically is captured in detail in Mann's Der Tod in Venedig (1912) via the novel's portrayal of von Aschenbach. After many years of diligent study, he has achieved an artistic style that follows "extreme beauty, purity, symmetry and classical mastery". Such devotion springs from typical views of Apollo, a detached god who embodies proportion and elegance, whose refinement towers over all, as he does in Perugino's portrayal of the base Marsyas. 

Western thought, however, haunted by polarities, has developed its views of the Arts along a more complex continuum, conflicting the control of Apollo with the chaos of Dionysus. The result, as Nietzsche revealed, is a tragic view of extreme emotion and pleasure, and this is what develops within Mann's novel as von Aschenbach gives into youthful desires, decamps from the fanatical military ordered world of creation, his masterwork on Frederick the Great, and his mature reflections on the "intellect" in art, in search of indulgence and desire.

The Apollonian-Dionysian continuum is one of contradictions...and unity. The tragic awareness, contrasting life and death, bliss and suffering, is often imagined as the shadow of pleasure. The composer Arvo Part, however, has discussed this in another brilliant metaphor: Apollo-Dionysus is the "pain of light", a piercing penetration into the psyche (which befits a sun-god armed with arrows). 

Der Tod in Venedig can be read, as it infrequently has, using the Apollo-Dionysus dialectic to account for van Aschenbach's tragic demise. There is something deeper and more complex at the heart of the novel, something that leads the artist to his cholera induced heart attack: not a dialectic, but a trilectic. The name von Aschenbach suggests "ashen creek", a place of gloomy death, a marshland brought to life in cholera infested Venice and a psychological domain drawing from the stinking wastelands that Hermes would cross as guide to the Underworld. An understanding of Art, suggests Mann, includes Apollo-Dionysus-Hermes where Hermes is the sudden shock, the hidden spark, the dangerous, playful game in the dark heart of creativity.

Mann's Der Tod in Venedig is a deeply biographical novel. As Katia Mann recalls in her Unwritten Memories (1974) “This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach...[.]" But the novel is not a novel about Mann's pederasty as mirrored in von Aschenbach. It is a study of the disturbances which occur when Hermes enters an artist's world. Von Aeschenbach's final meditation on the object of his love imagines the mythologem of Hermes the watery divine-child: "There he stayed a little, with bent head, tracing figures in the wet sand...then paused again...with his face facing seaward."

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