Critique of Bourgeois values in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice

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This term paper aims to depict the bourgeois value in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice from the perspective of Marshall Berman’s The Mire and Macadam.

In this novel we can explicitly see the bourgeois values; how the main character of this novel Gustav Von Aschenbach creates gap between himself and other, how he develops ignorant habit towards his own inner desire all his life and how he neglects the Dionysian value and gives emphasis to the Apollonian aspect, and how he represses his desire to follow the bourgeois norms and values that have been followed by his generations.

Aschenbach neglects the emotional impulse and gives emphasis on rationality and logic. This Apollonian attribute comes from his father’s gene, was a senior officer in the judiciary and used to follow all the rules and regulations of the bourgeois value. “Gustav Aschenbach was born in L. county town in the province of Silesia, the son of a senior official in the judiciary. His forebears had been officers, judges, and civil servants men who led discipline” (12). Aschenbach belongs to the bourgeoisie family where every norms and value were strictly used to follow. Though his mother has a Dionysian appetite, he used to neglect those values and always used to write by using his rational mind. He always used to think with the mind rather than the heart. These types of regular practices lead him to the ignorance towards the other people. Thus, it helps to develop the blasé attitude (Georg Simmel’s idea) in his life and this is the one prominent feature of Bourgeois value.

Critique of Bourgeois values in Mann’s Death in Venice
Critique of Bourgeois values in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice

In this novella, Death in Venice, the main character Gustav Von Aschenbach is deeply rooted in the bourgeoisie norms and values. Bourguagie always follows the rationality and morality of Victorian period very strictly to show superiority among other class people.  A similar concept has developed in Aschenbach’s mind. Though he has a strong homosexual desire with 14 years old boy Tadzio, he never accepts the voice of his inner heart. When he first encountered a boy in a hotel, he was too much fascinated and praises his beauty. his fair hair had been spared and shears . . . (46). Next day when he saw him at the dining table again appreciates his beauty:

. .. godlike beauty of this mortal being . . . the color, though none too elegant a match for the rest of the outfit, showing off the boy’s fair, blossoming head in its consummate charm, head of an Eros with the creamy glaze of Parian marble, eyebrows serious and finely traced, temples and ear covered darkly and softly at right angles by encroaching ringlets (52).

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He never tired of looking at him and appreciating his beauty throughout this novella. Though, he does many things to get the attention of that boy. He visited saloon, dyed his hair, removed his wrinkles and wore a red necktie in order to look younger and handsome. Though, he dreamt of staying together with him when he clearly knew about the plague of Venice city. He never informed anyone because of his strong wish to stay with him after dying other people. He represses this impulse in order to maintain the bourgeois status in a society who considers themselves as a perfect human being. In the bourgeoisie values, having sex or creating a desire to be with the same sex is like great sin in religion, crime in a judicial and mental problem in medical science. Because of this belief he never accepts his heart’s voice rather he started giving the different name of this love as the love between teacher and student. He sees his own childhood reflection on that boy.

Critique of Bourgeois values in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice
Critique of Bourgeois values in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice

Source: DW

Marshall Berman, Marxist humanist, influenced by French philosopher Charles Baudelaire and German philosopher Walter Benjamin. He has studied the work of Walter Benjamin and influenced by his works on which he has shown the affinity between Karl Marx and Charles Baudelaire because both of them deal with the same theme of modern art and thought called desanctification. He was also inspired by Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Loss of Halo” and directly borrows the notion of Loss of Aura. Charles Baudelaire celebrates the loss of halo in his poetry. He believes that bourgeoise always dominates the working class people. He gives voice to the voiceless people who were excluded by society. On the one hand, Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto shows the struggle between Bourgogne and Proletariat: “The Bourguagie has stripped of its halo every activity hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has transformed the doctor, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-laborers” (Marx 191). In this respect, we can clearly see the loss of halo in The death in Venice; Aschenbach representative of Bourguagie family who has a great history of rationality and discipline, who prefers to highly rely upon rationality. He wants to create unique individuality through writing. He seems as a disciplined rational being having Apollonian characteristics. “At forty at fifty and even when younger at an age when others dissipate their talents . . . he would start his day early by dashing cold water over his chest . . . He would spend two or three fervent, conscientious hours offering up to art the strength gathered in sleeping” (14). It shows that he has spent his whole life in the name of getting intellectual life or being a rational one. It is his daily routine to get up early in the morning and spend two or three hours for his art. He does not give permission to his emotional aspect to come in the surface. In this way, he has developed a blasé attitude. Though he has achieved a milestone of success his whole become monotonous or absurd in the absence of Dionysian aspect. His own Bourgeois values become harmful at the end. He is himself responsible for spoiling his life.

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Renowned critic, Steven Matthews, in his book, Modernism, asserts that “ D.H Lawrence’s late novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for instance, is often perceived as having notoriously challenged the English class system through its suggestion that desire recognizes no social boundaries” ( Lawrence 26). Here, though, the matter is little different but we can see how human desires cannot be controlled by the class boundaries. Aschenbach struggles against his impulses by focusing on the Apollonian aspect and regularly neglects the Dionysian impulse. But he fails when he sees the smile of Tadzio. He becomes very happy and delighted. These lines “Tadzio smiled, smiled at him, with an effusive intimate charming, unabashed smile, his lips opening slowly” (95) describes how much he is eagerly waiting for his response. He takes his smile as a response to his love and he utters “I love you” (96). But he never confesses his this kind of strong desire in front of him because of his highly polished Bourguagie values.

Critique of Bourgeois values in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice
Critique of Bourgeois values in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice

Source: Tavistock books

In a literature review, many reviewers have reviewed this novella from different perspectives. One of the reviewers, Michael Cunningham in The death in Venice, asserts that “. . . in the decaying city, besieged by an unnamed epidemic, he becomes obsessed with an exquisite Polish boy, Tadzio. “It is a story of the voluptuousness of doom,” Mann wrote. “But the problem I had especially in mind was that of the artist’s dignity” (Goodreads). He has clearly presented that maintaining dignity is the main problem of Aschenbach. He unwillingly valorizes the bourgeoise values and tries to follow those values throughout this novella. But finally, his suppressed desires burst out loud and he died.  Harry Kane, further reviews that  “Gustav Von Aschenbach never does confront the root of his intellect/orgiastic impulses split, but instead fights the impulses until they overwhelm his tired aged frame, and then submits to them, at the same time as the pre-antibiotic Venice infects him with cholera” (Kane). For him, Gustav Aschenbach has repressed his unconscious desire layering with his intellect what he has gained from his family.  Another reviewer Jonathan Nakapalau has also reviewed that “While on vacation aging writer Gustav von Aschenbach beholds the beauty of Tadzio, a teenage boy vacationing with his family. After this one look, he is enthralled – and cursed – to follow that path which will lead to his destruction” (Nakapalau). He has also pointed out the weaknesses of Aschenbach. Fran Lebowitz has also presented similar issues on Aschenbach. He reviewed that “the character around whom Death in Venice revolves is Gustave von Aschenbach, a fussy, repressed, aging German writer who is possessed of a high degree of Apollonian discipline, bourgeois respectability, and dignified solemnity (“Literary Corner Café”). These reviews also try to justify that all the Aschenbach’s misery comes from his own bourgeois values.

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To put in a nutshell, Death in Venice revolves around the so-called rational, logical values of Bourgeoisie to show the uselessness of those traditional strict values of Bourgeois. Thomas Mann, writer of this novella has satirized the hollow values of the bourgeois by attacking their Apollonian aspect through the main character Aschenbach and also tries to suggest that we should balance between Apollonian and Dionysian aspects in our life.  He suffers because of his own deep-rooted class-conscious value in his mind. Thus, he becomes the victim of his own repressive bourgeois value.

Works Cited

Berman, Marshall. “The Mire of the Macadam,” All that is Solid Melts into Air. London: Verso,     1983: 155-64. Print.

Cunningham, Michael. “Death in Venice”. Goodreads, 2005https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/53061.Death_in_Venice.

Lebowitz, Fran. “Literary Corner Café”. Book Review – Classics – Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, 2011 http://literarycornercafe.blogspot.com/2011/08/book-review-classics-death-in-venice-by.html. Accessed August 31.

Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice. Pymble, NWS, Australin: HarperCollins, 2004. Print.

Metthews, Steven. Modernism. New York: Oxford University Press Inc, 2004: 26- 42. Print.

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