Life as Menace: Thomas Mann and Michelangelo

He had intended to write a novella which centred on the seventy-two-year-old Goethe’s infatuation for a seventeen-year-old girl. It may well have been titled Goethe in Marienbad, since the episode had begun in this spa town in 1821, the great German polymath having followed the advice of his doctors to seek the waters there after a recent health scare.

Instead, Thomas Mann wrote Death in Venice (1912), the story of the demise of the fictional Gustav von Aschenbach, a disciplined ascetic and much-lauded writer of fiction, who, in his early fifties, falls victim to a malaise that in its infancy he does not properly understand. He has a feeling of being “paralysed by a scruple of distaste”, and in his professional endeavours, being bogged down by a “perfectionist fastidiousness”. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind he longs for an improvisatory vigour, something foreign to him personally and not part of the calculated weaponry of his writing. It is not that he has been writing badly—but it is clear to him that he requires a break—a change of environment. Even in this realisation however, such is his temperament, that the idea of taking a holiday requires a rigid method. This expresses itself in an extensive study of maps and timetables.

His restlessness leads him from his home in Munich to Trieste and then on to Pola. Still seeking “something strange and random” he visits an Adriatic island and when this destination still does not meet his somewhat confused expectations, he decides to do what he now realises should have been an obvious choice from the outset—he embarks for Venice.

What sort of writer is Aschenbach? Essentially Mann himself. We are told this fictional writer of fiction has a style which is elegant and self-controlled:

… concealing from the world’s eyes until the last moment a state of inner disintegration and biological decay; sallow ugliness, sensuously marred and worsted … Gustav Aschenbach was the writer who spoke for all those who work on the brink of exhaustion, who labour and who are heavy-laden, who are worn out already but stand upright, all those moralists of achievement who are of slight stature and scanty of resources …

For this his audience is grateful, and “his name has been spread far and wide”. He is famous. He has “achieved” dignity, determinedly and diligently by working hard as an artist. This has been the “conscious and defiant purpose of his entire development” and he has developed a craft that leaves behind such inhibiting factors as the scepticism and irony so popular with the young and under-developed.

In May 1911, Thomas Mann, together with his wife Katia and brother Heinrich, had holidayed in the Adriatic on the island of Brioni, near Pola. Here the party read of the death of Gustav Mahler. Mann had not so long ago met Mahler and held him in the highest regard. A week later, the party travelled to Venice. In the autobiographical essay A Sketch of My Life (1930), Mann boasts that the material for Death in Venice seemingly fell from the heavens:

Nothing is invented: the wanderer at the Northern Cemetery in Munich [the event that triggered the malaise], the gloomy ship from Pola [to Venice], the foppish old man [who plays up to his younger companions], the suspect gondolier [who has no licence], Tadzio and his family [the Polish boy, his mother and three sisters], the departure [from Venice] prevented by a muddle with the luggage [Aschenbach’s decision to leave the city is complicated by his luggage having been misdirected: in reality this had been his brother Heinrich’s suitcases], the cholera [an outbreak in Palermo, not Venice] …

The physical descriptions of Aschenbach were based on photographs of Mahler. Mann further described the holiday as “a personal lyrical travel-experience which moved me to make it all still more pointed by introducing the motif of ‘forbidden love’”.

The essay makes no mention of a developing passion for the Polish boy. However, Katia Mann wrote of her husband being fascinated by his presence:

In the dining-room, on the very first day, we saw the Polish family, which looked exactly like my husband described them. The girls were dressed rather stiffly and severely and he very charming, beautiful, a boy of about thirteen [he was in fact ten and a half], was wearing a sailor suit with an open collar and pretty lacings. He caught my husband’s attention immediately. This boy was tremendously attractive and he was always watching him … he didn’t pursue him through all of Venice—that he didn’t do—but the boy did fascinate him, and he thought of him often …

Wladyslaw, the boy, went on to become Baron Moes and identified himself in 1964 as the subject in the novella. He supplied Mann’s Polish translator with not only an accurate account of the Lido holiday but self-evidential photographs. He said that he could remember “an old man” looking at him while he was on the beach.

Mann was quite clear as to his purpose in writing Death in Venice. He wished to explore the idea of loss of dignity through passion—“passion as confusion and degradation”—the battle between the rational mind and eros—the Nietzschean dichotomy between Apolline order and Dionysian bacchanal.

In Goethe’s well-documented case, the young baroness Ulrike von Levetzow had provoked a passion intense enough for him to put forward an extraordinary and rejected proposal of marriage. So opposed to the idea were Goethe’s daughter and son-in-law that the old man’s Weimar household began to resemble a war zone. Gossip flowed. The likes of Friedrich Schiller’s widow, the Humboldts and Wilhelm Grimm fired off letters to each another, their common theme being that there was no fool like an old fool.

In a long letter to Carl Maria Weber, who had initially misinterpreted Mann’s book as expressing anti-homosexual sentiments, Mann explained that his Venice book examines:

the difference between the Dionysian spirit of lyric poetry as it individually and irresponsibly pours itself out, and the Apolline spirit of epic narrative with its objective commitment and its moral responsibilities to society. What I was trying to achieve was an equilibrium of sensuality and morality …

He mentions the symbolic role of Tadzio as Hermes Psychopompos, the deliverer and guide of souls to the underworld—the phallic god of boundary crossing—a messenger and divine herald, and later in the letter speaks of an “additional factor”:

something even more intellectual, because more personal: a fundamentally not at all “Greek” but Protestant and puritanical (“bourgeois”) nature, my own nature as that of the hero who undergoes the experience; in other words our fundamentally mistrustful, fundamentally pessimistic view of passion as such in general … Passion that drives to distraction and destroys dignity—that was really the subject-matter of my tale.

Thus, the book must become a tragedy rather than a story of personal liberation. As David Luke points out, Aschenbach is committed to an interpretation of life and art as “discipline and service”—“respectability and dignity”. Mann tells of Aschenbach’s “stern and sacred daily routine”, that he “did not enjoy enjoying himself” and further, “Since his whole being was geared to fame … [he] had learned to play a role and administer his fame while sitting at his desk.”

Robert Musil once described Mann as a “literary magnate”. Mann himself, in 1901, after the publication of Buddenbrooks, had confided in a letter to his brother Heinrich: “Sometimes my stomach turns over with ambition.” Mann asked in Reflections of a Non-Political Man (1918): “What is the point of writing if it is not an intellectual and moral endeavour to encompass a problematic ego?” This was another way of putting Goethe’s dictum: “If one wants to leave something worthwhile to posterity, it must be confessions; one must show oneself as an individual with all one’s thoughts and opinions.”

Mann had married at thirty in 1905, and despite what seems to have been a perfectly contented marriage to Katia, was susceptible to fleeting infatuations with young men for all of his long life. His diaries reveal a physical attraction even to the naked bodies of his own young sons. However, these erotic “visitations”, as he called them, were always tempered by a puritanism at odds with homosexual desire.

His last recorded infatuation occurred in July 1950, when he was seventy-five and smitten by a young Bavarian waiter in a Zurich hotel. He made a note in his diary of the man’s beautiful eyes and teeth and his charming smile, and elaborated: “After an absence of twenty-five years, it has come to me one more time … [I] saw his face just for a moment while coming down in the lift. It won my heart.” He states that while his own prestige and fame mean a great deal to him, “it is nothing compared to a smile from him, the look in his eyes”.

Twenty-five years earlier, Mann had reflected on what he had considered then would be an end to his homosexual longing. This was:

the last variation of love that will probably never be kindled again. How strange: happy and requited at fifty—and there’s an end to it. Goethe stamped the erotic course till he was over seventy-nine “always girls”. But in my case I suppose the inhibitions are stronger and one tires earlier, even apart from differences in vitality.

The year of the Bavarian waiter also saw Mann make much of the poems of Michelangelo. Mann admired the fact that Michelangelo, at seventy-two, had written about desiring new love. He was moved to write an essay, “On the Erotic in Michelangelo”. Here he spoke to an “immense, tortured vitality” and argued that this capacity for love was “the subsoil of his creativity, his inspiring genius, the driving force of his almost superhuman work”.

Michelangelo’s interest in poetry intensified after the completion of his colossal sculpture of David. He was then twenty-eight years old and by the end of his life he would leave some three hundred poems. These were heavily influenced by Petrarch and Dante and their repeated themes of love and longing, time and death, art and salvation. Towards the end of his life, Michelangelo wrote much regarding the physical tribulations of old age. Mann concurred with Michelangelo’s engagement in philosophical discourse prompted by personal experience, also the way in which he examined the internal war between emotion and scruple. The poems often speak of thwarted desire as it is expressed in the chivalric mode of poetry: the yearning for another, desired but either unattainable since the other belongs to another, or is unavailable through absence or death. It is a poetry that bemoans a desire that as the US critic James Saslow puts it, “must remain eternally chaste and unfulfilled”. And given the strictures of the time in which Michelangelo wrote—and here, it must be stressed that he was essentially a God-fearing man and strenuously denied the rumours of his homosexuality—carefully crafted expressions of homosexual love could be made in the same chivalric light, if, as in Michelangelo’s case, one avoided gender-specific pronouns or terms.

Little wonder that Mann was fascinated by both the poems and the person. Michelangelo’s own moral dilemma had filled him with self-loathing. Part of poem 285, written at the age of seventy-eight and which Michelangelo deemed successful enough to send on to Giorgio Vasari in 1554, could well have been written for Aschenbach:


So now I recognise how laden with error

was the affectionate fantasy

that made art an idol and sovereign to me,

like all things men want in spite of their best interests.


In poem 260 Michelangelo writes:


A violent burning for prodigious beauty

is not always a source of harsh and deadly sin,

if then the heart is left so melted by it

that a divine dart can penetrate it quickly.


In Death in Venice, Mann describes Tadzio by way of Aschenbach’s astonishment as “entirely beautiful”:

His countenance, pale and gracefully reserved, was surrounded by ringlets of honey-coloured hair, and with its straight nose, its enchanting mouth, its expression of sweet and divine gravity, it recalled Greek sculpture of the noblest period; yet despite the purest formal perfection, it had such unique personal charm that he who now contemplated it felt he had never beheld, in nature or in art, anything so consummately successful.

In 1944, Mann, approaching the age of seventy, notes in his diary that he often felt “excessively and unreasonably ill”. Despite the fact that he was making good progress on Doctor Faustus (1947), he increasingly came to believe that not only his body but his reputation was in decline. He would live long enough to be disappointed when Harry Levin changed his renowned Harvard course from “Proust, Joyce, and Mann” to “Proust, Joyce, and Kafka”. He had felt for a long time that he was a survivor from another epoch, an anachronism. In that year, Kurt Weill wrote to his wife Lotte Lenya and described the Mann couple as “two very sweet old people”. It jolts one’s consciousness to consider that Thomas and Katia could remember, in the early days of their marriage, accompanying their neighbour, the conductor Bruno Walter, to concerts: their mode of travel, horse-drawn vehicles complete with a coachman and grooms in full blue livery.

Michelangelo would also come to feel that he had outlived his own usefulness. In his visceral and at times grotesque poem 267: “I am shut up here alone and poor”, he speaks of the soul imprisoned in an increasingly malfunctioning body. In it he suffers from kidney stones and constipation and his lungs are full of muck. He is deaf in one ear and has suffered from tinnitus (“a cricket sings all night”) in the other for over thirty years. His skin sags over bones so that he resembles a scarecrow and some of his remaining teeth are loose. His face has “a shape that’s enough to terrify” (think of the self-portrait in the flayed skin of Saint Bartholomew in the Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel), and he is so ugly that he could well be the hag Befana, the one who deposits gifts, having come down the chimney, on the Feast of the Magi (Twelfth Night). He decides that his previous “scribbles” on paper might be of use for the making of tambourines or arse-wiping but little else. His regret lies in the realisation that the:

esteemed art in which I, for some time

enjoyed such renown, has brought me to this state …

So that I’m done for if I don’t die soon.

When Aschenbach visits a barber’s shop, the proprietor proves an astute and practised businessman. He persuades Aschenbach to have his greying hair returned to its “natural” colour, and applies himself to Aschenbach’s complexion and brow. As well, Aschenbach’s eyes are underlined with mascara, his cheeks rouged and his lips highlighted a “cherry red”. The barber’s mirror now portrays a man transformed as if by magic. The furrows on his cheeks and those around his mouth along with the wrinkles by his eyes have all somehow disappeared. The magician declares himself satisfied with his craft. With a “grovelling politeness” he exclaims, “Now the signor can fall in love as soon as he pleases!” Aschenbach returns to the street. The weather is sultry and the air is filled with the smell of decay.

On one of several following afternoons spent frantically stalking the young Pole and his family through labyrinths of Venetian streets and alleyways, Aschenbach rests outside a chemist’s shop:

There he sat, the master, the artist who had achieved dignity … 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—there he sat, with his eyelids closed …


Michelangelo’s poem 266 reads:

Is it any wonder, since, when near the fire,

I was melted and burned, if now that it’s extinguished

outside me, it besets and consumes me inside,

and bit by bit reduces me to ashes?


While it still burned, the source of my great burden

of suffering seemed so luminous to me

that the mere sight of it could make me happy,

and anguish and death were for me a joyful feast.


But now that heaven has robbed me of the radiance

of that great fire which burned and nourished me,

I am left an ember, lit but nearly smothered.


And if love does not supply fresh firewood

to revive my flame, then not a single spark

will be left of me, I’m turning so quickly to ashes.

Aschenbach’s death involves little drama. He has gazed on Tadzio, “the pale and lovely soul summoner” for a final time. Several minutes pass after he falls sideways from his beach chair onto the sand. Hotel staff carry his body to his room. The reading public is “respectfully shocked” to hear the news. The story ends.

Barry Gillard lives in Geelong. He wrote on Philip Larkin in the May issue.


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