What pleases the public is lively and vivid
delineation, which makes no demand on the intellect. This sentence comes from Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, published in 1912.
One hundred and nine years later, heavy rain falls outside the cottage where I write. Through large windows I am unable to see Mill Creek. I see only a forest of trees, as lush and green-laden as ever they have been, for the sixteen summers I've sat here to write and read.
Death in Venice is beside me, along with scattered yellow pages of notes. In my fourth read of Mann's 76 page novella, I'm on page 19. I stated this fact about the novella's length last week. I will say again, though in different words, how brilliant, descriptive, demanding, and difficult this short work of fiction is. What remains of my intellect is challenged. For that reason, I will offer what I wish had been my practice when I taught literature in high school and college. Today I would not heed institutional dictates, which meant asking students to draw abstractions and make pithy claims (borrowed, often misunderstood) about difficult literature. I would ask them to be writers and tell the story.
On this rainy Saturday, the last in June, my 78 year-old mind thinks this is a fine idea!
It is May in Munich during the early 19th century and a "mock" summer has set in. Fifty year-old von Aschenbach walks a solitary path. He passes a mortuary chapel that displays gilded scriptural texts about the future, and "everlasting light." This famous writer casts a glance at someone standing between two guardian apocalyptic beasts. The man is red-headed and carries an iron-clad stick. This man and Aschenbach exchange "tactless" stares. Then suddenly, to this esteemed writer's surprise, his consciousness is affected. He feels a widening of inward barriers, a "vaulting" unrest, a youthful and ardent thirst for distant scenes. This unexpected "desire" projects itself visually. In his mind Gustave sees crass vegetation, naked roots, stagnant shadows & glassy-green water, mammoth milk-white blossoms, and the eyes of a crouching tiger. Aschenbach's heart beats with terror and inexplicable longings.
What does this writer's disciplined mind do with this unexpected impulse? He makes it conform to the pattern that began in his youth; namely, a rigid and passionate service to his art. How does each day begin for Aschenbach? With a cold shower, followed by a long day of work, his motto silently repeated: Hold Fast. His virtuous life is one of endurance and conscious ascent to his family's historic honors. Aschenbach's whole soul, from the beginning, has been bent on fame; and the 'von' awarded to him at 50, represents his laudatory achievement as a writer. (There had been a wife who died young, a daughter now married, but no son.)
After his solitary walk and, before he boards a tram to return home, what solution comes to this weary writer's mind?
He will go on a journey. Ah, a journey! But the disciplined mind dictates…
But not all the way to the tigers.
To be continued…