An Evolutionary Approach to Death in Venice Part 3

Read from the beginning
Flesch follows theorists Amotz and Avishag Zahavi in positing what they call “the handicap principle” as an explanation for how strong reciprocity could evolve and persist in animal populations. As is evident from people’s behavior in The Ultimatum Game, they are willing to pay a price, in other words to handicap themselves, for the sake of fairness. What makes the handicap effective as a signal is that the individual who imposes it on him- or herself must be able to survive with the added burden. The peacock signals his fitness with his elaborate feathers because only a fit individual could drag around such a cumbersome display. (Conspicuous consumption is the human financial analog.) Humans, on the other hand, signal their fitness, and thus enhance their reputations, by taking on the costs of rewarding fellow altruists, and even more so by punishing defectors. Flesch calls this “costly signaling.” And it explains the emphasis Mann places on the costs incurred by Aschenbach in the service of his art. But does Aschenbach’s writing somehow signal his strong reciprocity?

Death in Venice is at base a narrative exploration of the nature of art and how it affects the life of the artist. It must be borne in mind that even as we are assessing Aschenbach’s work for signs of strong reciprocity we are simultaneously assessing the work of Thomas Mann for the same quality. This observation suggests the possibility that, altruistic as Aschenbach may have believed he was in the beginning of the story, Mann may be signaling to us, his readers, his own altruism by punishing his character for his wrongheaded approach to art. In Flesch’s words, “The story tells a story of punishment; the story punishes as story; the storyteller represents him- or herself as an altruistic punisher by telling it” (83). We in turn signal our own strong reciprocity by volunteering affect for the characters, in the case of Aschenbach a feeling of suspicion and indignation at the beginning—assuming we disagree with his theories of art—and perhaps even a pleasurable anticipation of comeuppance for him. By the end of the story, though, what we feel for him is more likely to be pity. Aschenbach won much of his acclaim as the author of a work called A Study in Abjection, which reflects his decision to “repudiate knowledge” (32). The story is described as

"an outbreak of disgust against an age indecently undermined by psychology and represented by the figure of that spiritless, witless semiscoundrel who cheats his way into a destiny of sorts when, motivated by his own ineptitude and depravity and ethical whimsicality, he drives his wife into the arms of a callow youth—convinced that his intellectual depths entitle him to behave
with contemptible baseness" (32).

It seems the story was about a second-order free-rider who failed or refused to punish two defectors. And the story itself was the punishment of the second-order free-rider by a third-order observer. So, Aschenbach is indeed a moralist, a strong reciprocator, by he is a moralist of a certain type:

"The forthright words of condemnation which here weighed vileness in the balance and found it wanting—they proclaimed their writer’s renunciation of all moral skepticism, of every kind of sympathy with the abyss; they declared his repudiation of the laxity of that compassionate principle which holds that to understand all is to forgive all" (32).

The principle Aschenbach adheres to in the place of understanding and forgiveness is Frederick the Great’s “durchhalten!” (29), which signals his determination to rise above his own disadvantages, to trumpet “the heroism of weakness” (31). This Anti-Enlightenment attitude is all but indistinguishable from conservative ideology at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century. And it may even be that with the novella Mann is signaling not just his strong reciprocity and his aesthetic philosophy, but also his political beliefs.

The closing section of the novella can be seen as a refutation of the theory of art expounded in the second chapter. Aschenbach, it seems, has overcompensated for the undignified, unmanly nature of his work by applying to it a militaristically strenuous ethos. Over time, this intense rigor has dried his well of creativity, and his existence has become unbearably sterile. The turn he takes over the course of the plot is toward greater fertility. Unfortunately, he lacks the wisdom to balance his unruly social emotions with his eagerness to maintain his dignity.

"There he sat, the master, the artist who had achieved dignity, the author of A Study in Abjection, he who in such paradigmatically pure form had repudiated intellectual vagrancy and the murky depths, who had proclaimed his renunciation of all sympathy with the abyss, who had weighed vileness in the balance and found it wanting; he who had risen so high, who had set his face against his own sophistication, grown out of all his irony, and taken on the commitments of one whom the public trusted; he, whose fame was official, whose name had been ennobled, and on whose style young boys were taught to model their own" (85).

Some critics cite these lines as evidence that the narrator is taking a step away from the character and establishing an ironic distance (Furst 167). According to this reading, Mann has witnessed his protagonist’s dejection in the face of overwhelming temptation, and is taking an opportunity to signal to his readers that he doesn’t condone this acquiescence but is merely narrating it. But the statement that Aschenbach had successfully “grown out of all his irony” in the midst of such an ironic sentence belies that reading. And that he goes on to deliver, in his imagination at least, a discourse on what he’s discovered through the course of his journey to be the true nature of art further suggests the inextricability of the narration from Aschenbach’s thoughts.

In the lines about the former dignified master, Mann is maintaining the free indirect style of narration he’s used throughout the story. The early respect and admiration evinced by the narrator is a reflection of Aschenbach’s high opinion of himself, and when this opinion turns sour it isn’t a signal that the narrator is abandoning him, but that he simply has come to think ill of himself. (A comparison of the narrative style of Death in Venice with that of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary may be of future interest.) In an earlier scene, Mann even locates the source of Aschenbach’s self-doubts. The love-stricken man is standing in the hallway of the hotel, leaning his head against the door to listen for Tadzio’s voice, and running “the risk of being surprised and discovered in this insane situation” (71). This risk calls to mind his ancestors, to whom he habitually rehearses the list of his achievements so that he can assure himself of “the respect they could not have withheld.” But naturally he’s worried about what they might say about his present circumstances.

"But for that matter, what would they have said about his entire life, a life that had deviated from theirs to the point of degeneracy, this life of his in the compulsive service of art, this life about
which he himself, adopting the civic values of his forefathers, had once let fall such mocking observations" (71).

Aschenbach’s militaristic approach to his writing has been a reaction to his abiding uncertainty about the value, the manly dignity, of any life devoted to art. He wants to prove to himself that he is living up to the standards and ideals of his heroic ancestors. And yet, here he is, shamefully infatuated with a young boy he lacks the social grace even to greet casually. We may feel pity for him at this point, but to do so, ironically, we must apply that same principle, “to understand all is to forgive all” (32), he himself has so strenuously repudiated. This is his comeuppance.

In his discourse to Phaedrus near the end of the novella, Aschenbach has to admit to the young boy, and to himself, that “though we may be heroes in our fashion and disciplined warriors, yet we are like women, for it is passion that exalts us,” and that “we writers can be neither wise nor dignified” (85). And, despite his earlier renunciation, he now recognizes that he “has been born with an incorrigible and natural tendency toward the abyss” (86). The great author’s downfall can be read as the inevitable result of his long repression of this tendency. But it can also be read as a demonstration of the real dangers all artists must face, the costs that will ensue should they fail to strike a proper balance between disciplined solitude and passionate abandon. As the story begins, Aschenbach’s work is described as tending “toward the exemplary and definitive, the fastidiously conventional, the conservative and formal and even formulaic” (33). This description is remarkable for its distance from the work in which it is found, and thus it fails to imply the approval the author—here at the beginning of the story is where the narrator’s ironic distance is most in evidence. And since the distance between Aschenbach and Thomas Mann is established early on, the two men’s views of art can actually be seen as converging at the end of the novella, though Mann probably intended to imply that Aschenbach is overcompensating in the opposite direction in his move toward acknowledging his kinship with the abyss.

But is Aschenbach’s attraction to Tadzio merely a punishment exacted by an unsympathetic contriver of the plot that is his fate? When he first glimpses the young boy, it is in the presence of several of his sisters, a governess, and later his mother. This absence of an adult male figure may be noteworthy in light of the narrator’s earlier emphasis on the fact that Aschenbach, though once married and father to a girl, “never had a son” (33). As noted earlier, his feelings for the boy are at one point described as “a paternal fondness” (51). In many ways, Tadzio is nothing like the old man: he has long, blond, curly hair, compared with Aschenbach’s short, dark hair; he gives off an “air of richness and indulgence” (44), while Achenbach is all austerity and restraint; he is a “lie-abed” (46) while the old man gets up early to work; most importantly, Tadzio is always surrounded with companions, while Aschenbach had “grown up by himself, without companions,” and because of his physical weakness “medical advice and care made school attendance impossible” (29). Tellingly, after first seeing Tadzio and watching him on the beach that first time, he goes back to his hotel room, where

"he spent some time in front of the looking glass studying his gray hair, his weary sharp-featured face. At that moment he thought of his fame, reflected that many people recognized him on the streets and would gaze at him respectfully, saluting the unerring and graceful power of his language—he recalled the external successes he could think of that his talent had brought him,
even calling to mind his elevation to nobility" (51).

What Aschenbach has just become aware of through comparing himself to the boy is that Tadzio is prosocial—he even volunteers some punitive affect, a mild altruistic punishment on behalf of his Polish countrymen, to a Russian family sharing the beach when he signals them by “glaring forth a black message of hatred” (49)—while he, despite his fame, is utterly friendless and his days are devoted solely to his own selfish endeavors. In many ways, Tadzio is his conduit from his northern, solitary, disciplined, and even antiseptic existence to the southern world that is crowded, indulgent, and, it turns out, infected. When he acknowledges his love for the boy is when his famously closed fist opens in “a gesture that gladly bade welcome” (57).
Read part 4