A Literary Darwinist Take on Death in Venice Part 1

There is comfort to be had in the orderliness of solitude, but that orderliness will be the first casualty in any encounter with other people. Such is the experience of Gustav von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s 1911 novel Death in Venice. Aschenbach has not, however, strived for solitude and order for the sake of comfort—at least not by his own account—but rather for the sake of his art, to which he has devoted himself single-mindedly, even monomaniacally, his whole life. Now, at age fifty, newly elevated to a titled status, Aschenbach has become acutely aware of all he has sacrificed on the altar of his accomplishment. The desire for fame, as philosopher David Hume explained, is paradoxically an altruistic one. At least in the short-term, no one has anything to gain from the dedication and toil that are the hallmark of ambition. And status will tend to be awarded to those whose services or accomplishments benefit society at large and not any select part of it the ambitious has special designs for or interest in. As selfish as we may seem at first glance, we humans tend to be drawn to the ambitious for the other-directedness their ambition signals.

Evolutionary Literary Critic William Flesch incorporates Hume’s argument into the theoretical framework he lays out in Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction, in which he posits that one of our biggest joys in reading fictional narratives derives from our capacity to track characters while anticipating rewards for the altruistic and comeuppance for the selfish. With this biological perspective in mind, Aschenbach’s fate in the course of the novel can be viewed as hinging on whether he will be able, once he’s stepped away from the lonely duty of his writing, to establish intimate relationships with real humans, as he betrays a desperate longing to do. When he ultimately fails in this endeavor, largely because he fails to commit himself to it fully, Mann has the opportunity to signal to his readers how grave the danger is that every artist, including Thomas Mann, must face as he stands at the edge of the abyss.

Mann’s novel was published at an interesting time, not just geopolitically, but in the realm of literary theory as well. Most notably, the years leading up to 1911 saw the ascendancy of Freudian psychoanalysis. Mann has even suggested that Death in Venice was at least partly inspired by Freud’s ideas (Symington, 128). And it has gone on to be re-evaluated countless times in light of not only psychoanalytic developments but of those of several other newly christened and burgeoning literary theories. Readers of this nearly hundred-year-old story may rightly ask whether it has any meaning to anyone not steeped in such paradigms, especially since the value—and validity—of literary theory in general, and psychoanalysis in particular are being questioned in many arenas. Terry Eagleton notes in the preface to the 25th Anniversary Edition of his popular Literary Theory: An Introduction that there has been “in recent times the growth of a kind of anti-theory” (vii). In the original preface to the same work, he writes:
"Some students and critics…protest that literary theory “gets in between the reader and the work.” The simple response to this is that without some kind of theory, however unreflective and implicit, we would not know what a “literary work” was in the first place, or how we were to read it" (xii).
Authors like Flesch, however, along with others who subscribe to the recently developed set of theories collectively labeled Literary Darwinism, would probably insist that Eagleton vastly underestimates just how unreflective and implicit our appreciation of narrative really is.

If there are cases, though, in which Eagleton’s argument holds up, they would probably be those works which are heavily influenced by the theories that would be referenced to interpret them, and Death in Venice certainly falls into that category. But these special cases shouldn’t overshadow the fact that when Eagleton makes the seemingly obvious point that we must have some theory of literature if we’re to make any sense of our reading, he is in fact making a rather grand assumption, one in keeping with a broader poststructuralist paradigm. According to this view, objectivity is impossible because our only real contact with the world and its inhabitants is through language. This observation, which in a banal way is indisputable—if it’s not rendered linguistically we can’t speak or write about it—takes the emphasis away from any firsthand experience with either the world or the text and affords to language the utmost power in determining our beliefs, and even our perceptions. The flipside of this linguistic or discursive determinism is that any social phenomenon we examine, from a work of fiction to the institutionalized marginalization of women and minorities, is somehow encapsulated in and promulgated through the medium of language. Poststructuralism has led many to the conclusion that the most effective remedy for such inequality and injustice consists of changing the way we talk and write about people and their relations. This political program, disparaged (accurately) by conservatives with the label “political correctness,” has been singularly ineffective.

One possible explanation for this failure is that the poststructuralists’ understanding of human nature and human knowledge is grossly off the mark. Indeed, to Eagleton’s claim that we need a theory of literature or of language to get meaning out of a novel, most linguists, cognitive neuroscientists, and any other scientist involved in the study of human behavior would simply respond nonsense. Almost all of the “structures” discursive determinists insist are encapsulated in and propagated through language are to be found elsewhere in human (and sometimes non-human) cognition and in wider cultural networks. It is perhaps a partial concession to the argument that discursive determinism can only lead to infinite regresses, and that any theory of literature must be grounded in a wider understanding of human nature, that the longest chapter of Eagleton’s book is devoted to psychoanalysis. And what could Death in Venice be if not a tale about a repressed homosexual who has achieved eminence through the disciplined sublimation of his desires into literature, but who eventually buckles under the strain and succumbs to perversion and sickness? More importantly, if Freud’s model of the unconscious has been shown to be inaccurate, and repression a mere chimera, must Mann’s novel be relegated to a category of works whose interest is solely historical? (One of the most damning refutations of Eagleton’s argument for the necessity of theory is that such a category is so difficult to fill.)

If Flesch is correct in arguing that our interest in fiction is inseparable from our propensity for tracking other people, assessing their proclivity toward altruism, and anticipating the apportionment of just deserts, Gustav von Aschenbach, who has devoted his life to solitary public service, but who through the course of the novel abandons this service and sets out on an adventure consisting of multiple potential encounters with flesh-and-blood humans, may still attract the attention of post-Freudian (or simply non-Freudian) readers. Another way to frame to the repression-sublimation-perversion dynamic central to Death in Venice is as an enactment of the benefits of an intense devotion to art being overwhelmed by its costs and risks. An excerpt that can serve as a key to unlocking the symbolism of the entire novel comes when Aschenbach is at last settled in his hotel in Venice:

"The observations and encounters of a devotee of solitude and silence are at once less distinct and more penetrating than those of the sociable man; his thoughts are weightier, stranger, and never without a tinge of sadness. Images and perceptions which might otherwise be easily dispelled by a glance, a laugh, an exchange of comments, concern him unduly, they sink into mute depths, take on significance, become experiences, adventures, emotions. The fruit of solitude is originality, something daringly and disconcertingly beautiful, the poetic creation. But the fruit of solitude can also be the perverse, the disproportionate, the absurd and the forbidden "(43).

Can Aschenbach, a devotee of solitude, be considered prosocial or altruistic? He can when the fruit of his solitude is the poetic creation prized by the society as a whole. However, the plot of the story focuses more on the perverse and the forbidden, on the great man’s fall from grace. Any yet these costs are suffered, not by society, but by the artist alone, so in the end he can be seen as even more of an altruist—he is in fact a martyr. (And many a poststructuralist critic would take this opportunity to highlight the word art in the middle of martyr.)

In the lead-up to this martyrdom, however, Aschenbach toes the very selfish waters of pedophilia. What little suspense the plot has to offer comes from uncertainty over how far the august author will allow his obsession with the young boy Tadzio to take him. Are we monitoring Aschenbach to see if he gives into temptation? Interestingly, his attraction for the young boy is never explicitly described as sexual. There are suggestive lines, to be sure, especially those coming in the wake of Aschenbach’s discovery of the epidemic being covered up by the Venetian authorities. His response is to become elated.

"For to passion, as to crime, the assured everyday order and stability of things is not opportune, and any weakening of the civil structure, any chaos and disaster afflicting the world, must be welcome to it, as offering a vague hope of turning such circumstances to its advantage" (68).

This line can not only be read as proof that Aschenbach indeed has a selfish desire to satisfy, a passion awaiting the opportunity to press—or take—its advantage; it can also be seen as a piece of puzzle that was his motivation for coming to Venice in the first place. Did he gravitate to this place because of the disruption of the daily order, the chaos, it promised? Soon after the narrator refers to this “vague hope” he reveals that Aschenbach has begun doing more than merely watching Tadzio—he’s been following him around. All the while, though, the unease about whether the devotee of solitude will ever get close enough to do any sort of harm to the object of his obsession is undercut by the great pains he goes to just to keep the boy in view juxtaposed with the fact that it never seems to occur to him to simply approach and begin a conversation.
Read part 2