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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Remember affable Roger Ebert, the movie critic?

In 1971 Ebert wrote a review of Visconti's Death in Venice.

He said the movie lacked ambiguity and Thomas Mann's philosophical depth; that the film presented an unambiguous story of a composer's homosexual love for Tadzio, the beautiful Polish boy. Yet Ebert praised Visconti's film for its visual brilliance, which captured Mann's words: "Nature herself shivers with ecstasy when the mind bows down in homage before beauty."


This Italian film director came from nobility, was famous for his operatic productions and movies, made no secret of his bisexuality, smoked 120 cigarettes a day, and died of a stroke at age 69. Thomas Mann, in contrast, had six children with his German-Jewish, secular wife; and he left diaries that revealed conflict about his possible bisexuality. In last week's blog I mentioned other facts about Mann, though not that this famous writer, a U.S. citizen in 1944, was accused during the crazy McCarthy years of being a Communist. Which is why Mann moved from California to Switzerland, where he died in 1955.


Mann's novella, Death in Venice, is important, especially given our ugly times, pandemic and otherwise. The setting is plague-ridden Venice with its Asian cholera, a pestilence that "authorities" are trying to keep hidden. I read the novella for the third time this week and again noted the Phaedrus-Socrates dialogue. Twice at length, Mann refers to it in the novella; and this made me revisit my junior year at USC, and a semester course in Classical Greek and Roman Literature.


Until I met Dr. Berry in 1964, I was a mediocre student. This professor had come to Los Angeles from Oxford University (U.K.) where students presented papers and were given oral exams. This meant Dr. Berry gave private exams to his students. Oh, the terror of this! No possibility of BS in blue books, my usual mode of academic survival. Seated across from this brilliant professor, my ignorance or knowledge were on display; and superficial answers resulted in continuous Socratic questioning, until Dr. Berry ascertained whether I knew or did not know the material. Never, ever, had I prepared for exams the way I did for Dr. Berry.


This is where I stopped writing last night, June 20th. I went downstairs and located the Great Dialogues of Plato, 75 cents, a Mentor Classic paperback from my Classical Literature course. I began reading the "Symposium," noting my marks in the book from Dr. Berry's class.


It is now Monday morning. After reviewing the Phaedrus-Socrates dialogue, I know I must dig deeper in Mann's 76-page novella. Yet I am removing Visconti's film from my discussion. Pederasty, common to ancient Greek life, intertwined in the Phaedrus dialogue, became Visconti's focus: the dreamed of sexual relation between a man and a boy. Yet Eros as Mann explores it, is a form of divine madness. My hope for next week is to describe Death in Venice in one page so a reader (even if that's only Ilona and Dorie!) will grasp what I carried away from a deeply impressive, meaningful, short work of fiction. Most of all, I wish to pay homage to Dr. Berry, whose Greek ideal of what a teacher and student should be, has influenced my life for 68 years.


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