The Cost of Denying the Abyss: Signals of Selfishness and Altruism in Death in Venice 4th and Final Part

Read from the beginning
It is Tadzio’s role as a paragon of prosociality that makes his less than perfect teeth so striking to Aschenbach. When he first notices that the boys’ teeth are “not as attractive as they might have been,” he sees it as a sign that he is “sickly” and that he will “probably not live to grow old” (51). For some reason this thought provides him with a “feeling of satisfaction or relief,” perhaps because it allays some of the envy he feels for the boy, which is naturally already much allayed simply by dint of his being a child. Later, when Tadzio is playing on the beach with his friend Jashu, he is described as looking at the other boy and “smiling with eyes and lips” (60). And, when it happens by chance that Aschenbach and Tadzio actually come face-to-face and the young boy smiles at the old man, he can barely stand it. “You mustn’t smile like that!” he imagines saying. “One mustn’t, do you hear, mustn’t smile like that at anyone!” (67). The symbolism of teeth in Death in Venice is close to that of language: Aschenbach comes to know that “Eros dwells in language” (62) as he sits writing an essay that has been inspired by the boy’s beauty. Language itself is an inherently social adaptation. But the old writer uses it only in isolation. Likewise, teeth serve both the self-directed function of mastication and the other-directed one of conveying emotion.

Aschenbach at the beginning only sees virtue in the artist who “clenches his teeth in proud shame” (30) as he sacrifices himself, like St. Sebastian, to his art. But it was, in fact, the appearance of an exotic traveler’s teeth, bared aggressively, that brought about the “extraordinary expansion of his inner self” (25) that culminates in his trip to Venice. What he can’t stand about Tadzio’s smile is that it shows the happiness that comes with human interaction. Near the end of the novella, after he’s had his epiphanic vision of the bacchanal overtaking the mountains with “a human and animal swarm” (81), and after the narrator says that he “no longer feared the observant eyes of other people” (82), he is prepared to accept this message of the dual-purpose of teeth—and language—from the barber who is trying to convince him to dye his hair: “If certain people who profess moral disapproval of cosmetics were to be logical enough to extend such rigorous principles to their teeth, the result would be rather disgusting” (83).
But Tadzio serves as a major character in a novella that hews to an aesthetic of verisimilitude, so there must be more to him than what he symbolizes. What Mann suggests in the story is that Aschenbach is genuinely attracted to the boy for his classical beauty. From this initial admiration, his obsession could simply have developed as a result of his hitherto un-volunteered emotions finding a convenient object. From this perspective, the absence of Tadzio’s father is significant because it means there is less threat of violent reprisal for his stalking of the boy. Aschenbach is a social cripple. While he is simply incapable of meaningfully conversing and interacting with adults, he is morally and artistically bound not to get too close to the young boy. At one of the few points where he considers taking the plunge, he balks because he fears it would lead “to a wholesome disenchantment,” and “the fact now seemed to be that the aging lover no longer wished to be disenchanted, that the intoxication was too precious to him” (63). His solitary existence has been suffocating him so long that he’s glad for even this unfulfilling and forbidden interaction at a distance.

And the two do indeed interact. It seems the influence between them isn’t just in the direction of sociable boy to aloof man either; it goes the other way as well. When the street band plays outside the hotel, Aschenbach is horrified by the guitarist’s violation of “artistic distance” (76) as he works the crowd, a social artist without the slightest concern for dignity. While the rest of the crowd laughs, Aschenbach remains serious, and to his surprise he sees Tadzio, sitting on a balcony across from him, is “returning his glance,” and

"had remained no less serious than himself, just as if he were regulating his attitude and expression by those of the older man, and as if the general mood had no power over him while Aschenbach kept aloof from it" (76).
A few days later, on what will be his last day on the beach, Aschenbach witnesses a fight between Tadzio and his subservient friend Jashu. The weaker but higher-status boy throws sand in the face of the stronger, submissive one. Jashu wrestles Tadzio to the ground and presses his face into the sand until he is nearly suffocated. After the tussle, Tadzio sulks away, waving off all gestures of remorse and refusing all pleas for forgiveness. The last thing Aschenbach sees before his death is the boy he loved for his social nature standing alone on a small island with his back to his friends. As he loses consciousness, he imagines the young boy summoning him, not to himself but out toward the sea, the abyss, beyond.

Aschenbach ultimately fails to save Tadzio by informing his mother of the epidemic because he lacks the strength to redeem himself. The idea of returning to the sterility of his disciplined solitude appeals to him no more than resigning himself to death from cholera. Even though he considers telling Tadzio’s mother to leave Venice with her family, “a decent action which would cleanse his conscience,” and which would also signal his altruism, he never goes through with it because it would “give him back to himself again” (80). He thus becomes a second-order free-rider by failing to punish the Venetian authorities who are covering up the crisis to protect their income from tourists. But he will get what’s coming to him. He will pay the price for his fame and for the mistake embodied in the art that purchased it for him; he pays for trying to deny his affinity with the abyss—and in doing so he signals his creator’s acknowledgement of it.

Of the considerations which recommend Flesch’s theory about our emotional engagement with literature, perhaps the most compelling is that if it is valid it would lead to the inevitable conclusion that we in fact don’t need a theory, either Flesch’s or anyone else’s, to enjoy narratives. (A theory that argues for its own superfluity—how’s that for costly signaling?) And it is difficult to imagine someone reading Death in Venice for the first time and not vacillating between pity and disgust at each new development of Aschenbach’s predicament, not wondering what Thomas Mann meant in having his character go on at such overblown length about the nature of art, not shuffling among multiple hypotheses about Mann’s feelings toward Aschenbach, and not dreading the possibility that Tadzio might be harmed in some way, his innocence compromised, dreading it almost as much for the sake of Aschenbach as for the boy himself because it would be so catastrophic for both of them. It is difficult to imagine anyone laying the book down and then having a casual conversation about it that didn’t focus on these concerns.

But, if the theory does have validity, it would not suggest that all works ought to be equally accessible to all readers, and part of the appeal of Death in Venice is that it is multifaceted enough to prompt innumerable conversations, casual and otherwise, assuming those reading it have the wherewithal to appreciate its niceties. After all, our ability to appreciate the most sophisticated texts is a form of honest signaling onto itself. In addition to sophistication, Mann’s novella also provides us an opportunity to signal our own strong reciprocity by caring what type of character Achenbach turns out to be—and what type of author Thomas Mann was. In the end, though, the characters in any given story need not lend themselves to easy analysis in terms of strong reciprocity; many of the most fascinating characters, from Milton’s Satan, to Bronte’s Heathcliff, even to the pirate Jack Sparrow, demonstrate dynamic mixes of selfish and altruistic behavior. But what will they do when it really matters?