• Gail Wilson Kenna

Hair Dye Debauchery

One late afternoon on MSNBC, I listened to a press conference and watched Rudy Giuliani, sweating profusely, handkerchief in hand, dabbing at brown hair dye running down both sides of his face.

My thought? Where have I seen this before?

Later it came to me. I had seen hair dye on a feverish face in Visconti's film, Death in Venice, when Gustave Aschenbach, played by Dick Bogarde, is ill with cholera. Earlier, Aschenbach had learned just how terrible and dangerous the plague was in Venice. But he did not warn the Polish mother to leave the hotel with her two daughters and the Greek God-like boy, Tadzio. Why? Aschenbach's "mind and heart were drunk with passion, his footsteps guided by the demonic power whose pastime is to trample on human reason and dignity." And "in his very soul he tasted the bestial degradation of his fall….and he who is beside himself revolts at the idea of self-possession."

Degradation of his fall.

Is not the "fall" central to Judeo-Christian culture, whether that someone is a famous German writer in 1912 or a New York lawyer, former mayor, in 2021? This scene with the hair dye, for both the fictional man and the real one, is tragic, not comic. For Rudy G. I cannot speak. But Thomas Mann makes it clear, as does film-maker Visconti, that for Aschenbach… the absence of his self-possession means he wants to change his form to appeal to the boy, Tadzio.

"The presence of this youthful beauty had bewitched him, filled Aschenbach with disgust of his own aging body; the sight of his grey hair…." He must be more attractive to the boy…and the hotel barber would be happy to restore his youth: arched eyebrows, delicate carmine glow to his skin, lips the color of ripe strawberries, hair as black as his youth.

Until the dye of debauchery runs, that is.

I now see that I was mistaken about Visconti's film. In one essential way the Italian director was right. Mann's short novella has multiple levels; and Visconti focused on the Phaedrus dialogue and pederasty, related to classical Greece and Socrates. (Wikipedia has a helpful eight pages about this. Key Phaedrus (dialogue) Briefly stated, Eros is the desire to take pleasure in beauty, including the beauty in human bodies. The problem, Socrates says in the dialogue, is that a man overcome with this desire wants to turn the boy into whatever is most pleasing to himself, rather than what is best for the boy. But "right-minded reason" must prevail for the relationship to help both the lover and the beloved to grow and reach the divine. Neither occurs in Death in Venice, in the novella or the film. Each has a familiar motif of the Journey (the Quest), along with another similar form, Voyage and Return. But for Aschenbach it is a voyage without a return, though in his last view of Tadzio, in the sea…"it seemed the pale and lovely Summoner out there smiled at him and beckoned."

Mann ends the novel with these words:

"Some minutes passed before anyone hastened to the aid of the elderly man sitting there collapsed in his chair. They bore him to his room. And before nightfall a shocked and respectful world received the news of his decease."

How I wonder will Rudy G's obit read?

On a more positive note, I am grateful that Billy Budd, and Thomas Mann's appreciation for Melville's last literary work, returned me to Death in Venice, which I first read at USC in 1964. Next week I would like to look at another short work I read that same year. The other day I found Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger at Lancaster Library's used bookstore. Fifty cents to visit the past!

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