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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Tadzio's Ineffably Sweet Look

I used "ineffable" last week to describe Melville's character, Billy Budd. Why am I using this word again? I meant 'ineffable' for Billy in a sadly, ironic way. His tragic flaw was to stutter or be rendered mute. Billy needed words to defend himself against Claggart's accusations; and absent words, Billy only had his powerful fists.


This week, reading Death in Venice, how could I not mark Mann's phrase: "Tadzio's ineffably sweet look." And how could Thomas Mann not have thought of Billy Budd in relation to his own character: the beautiful, young, wordless Polish boy, Tadzio?


I first read Death in Venice in fall 1963 at USC. The course was contemporary German and French literature in translation, held in a large hall, two unapproachable German and French professors, who gave multiple blue book essay exams. None of this is important except that through this course I was introduced to Franz Kafka and Albert Camus.


Although intrigued with Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, I knew I did not understand this multi-layered story of an aging writer, Aschenbach, overcome by aridity and fatigue. The professor must have unriddled the puzzle of this artist/writer's nature. And I would have parroted his abstractions into my blue book, lauding the ideas, having recognized that Mann was a personal favorite of this professor. He provided more background on Mann than other writers, let us know Thomas had died eight years earlier in 1955, won the Nobel Prize for literature, openly wrote against fascism, had left Germany, come to the USA and lived here, though died in Switzerland. Then the mind had to store information, not depend on a hand-held device! -😊


This week I located my Penguin copy from the USC course and was surprised to see a work by J.M. Turner on the cover. This English artist had influenced Melville. I wonder if Herman in his travels went to Venice. I do know it became my desire to go there after I saw Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice in 1972. Earlier in college, I had not understood Mann's story, though it haunted me. I loved the film's overwhelming physical beauty and its detailed rendering of Venice in the early 1900s. Yet Visconti presented the German Aschenbach as homosexual, a man overcome with lust for the beautiful Polish boy, Tadzio. In 1963, this idea had not been discussed in the German professor's lecture. The story was about an intellectual author whose life had become dry and arid, who had begun to question his fame, his intellectuality, the nature of art. And because I had not read Mann's short work of fiction in any depth (and did not remember the professor's abstract analysis) I accepted Visconti's interpretation. His film mesmerized me with Venice's beauty; and I imagined my own journey there one day. More even than the visual beauty was the film's music. As beautiful and romantic as anything I had ever heard. I speak of Mahler's 5th symphony and the fourth movement, the adagio. Visconti made Aschenbach, the writer, into the musical genius, Gustav Mahler. Mann might have had Mahler in mind when he created Aschenbach, but he clearly made his character, a writer.


I reread Death in Venice twice this week. In Mann's telling of the story, no words are exchanged between the German artist/writer and the boy, Tadzio. I will read the story again and explain why, almost fifty years later, I question Visconti's interpretation of Mann's story.

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