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  1. What is the grave threat that hangs over the peace of Europe?
    1. Is there a connection between the decay of Aschenbach and the decay of Europe?
    2. Northern austerity and Southern sensuality.
  2. How important is the Byzantine detail? Doesn’t it separate us away from Christianity, in a sense?
  3. With that in mind: is the red-haired stranger The Devil? Or is he an aspect of Dionysus? (Especially the stuff about his animal-like appearance, e.g. the horns.)
  4. Or, also: could the red-haired man be both real and not real at the same time? (Is Aschenbach possibly cruising? Maybe even unwittingly? In hoping to escape from his lusts in Munich, is he instead just hurried towards his doom in Venice?)
    1. Cruising:
      1. In the late nineteenth century Munich had a reputation as one of the most sexually liberal cities in Germany.
      2. One of the last German states to re-criminalize homosexuality.
      3. King Ludwig II: One of the gayest kings to ever queen.
        1. Reigned: 10 March 1864 – 13 June 1886
        2. His younger brother (and successor) Otto: insane
        3. King Ludwig and the doctor assigned to him in captivity at Berg Castle on Lake Starnberg were both found dead in the lake in waist-high water, the doctor with unexplained injuries to the head and shoulders, the morning after the day Ludwig was deposed.
        4. Had Neuschwanstein Castle built
        5. Throughout his reign, Ludwig had a succession of close friendships with men, including his chief equerry and Master of the Horse, Richard Hornig (1843–1911), Hungarian theatre actor Josef Kainz, and courtier Alfons Weber (born c.1862). He began keeping a diary in which he recorded his private thoughts and his attempts to suppress his sexual desires and remain true to his Roman Catholic faith.
        6. Broke off an engagement thusly: “The main substance of our relationship has always been … Richard Wagner’s remarkable and deeply moving destiny.”
      4. The park Aschenbach walks through, The English Garden, has been a meeting place for homosexuals from shortly after its construction in the late 18th century to the present day.
  5. What do we make of Aschenbach’s vision of the tropical swampland? He wants to go not quite to tigers. (This becomes dense irony later because he’s walking directly into tigers in Venice: he’ll die there, and the cholera is there, which, per the book, may have been born in the tropics of India.)
    1. The connection with India: it is claimed that Dionysus created/refined the Bacchanal in India.
  6. Are the seeds of Aschenbach’s decline within him from the start: he’s the product of the union of austere Northern stock and a Bohemian mother.
  7. Why is Auschenbach an artist? (And the answer can’t be “because Thomas Mann was an artist.” Note, too, that the answer to the question, “Why was Tadzio a boy?” can’t be “Because Thomas Mann fell in love with a boy.” We’re looking for the artist’s message, not confirming his biography.)
    1. Aschenbach’s dutiful devotion to work, however, wreaks havoc on his naturally fragile health, and he is constantly battling illness. Thus, central to both his life and his writing is the notion that all great things can exist only in “defiant despite” of suffering, poverty, physical frailty, corruption, and passion. For him, art is the triumph over these torments.
  8. Is Aschenbach punished for his hubristic control over passion and the physical? Is that what makes him susceptible in such a terrible way to the pull and call of intense beauty?
    1. Or, rather: Is Mann’s argument that Aschenbach had never been a true artist until he was corrupted by immoral desire?
    2. “The fame of the artist a farce, the mass reliance on him stupidity.” (from “Working Notes for Death in Venice”)
  9. What do the men on the boat represent? (Mythological characters, in my reading: satyrs and other attendants on Dionysus.
  10. What of the old man poorly disguised as a young man?
  11. The gondolier is Charon, right? And a connection to the red-haired man with his (the gondolier’s) reddish eyebrows.
  12. Has the painted old/young man also given himself over to Dionysus? Can one give oneself to Dionysus and come out unscathed? Is the painted old man a type of Aschenbach? Or is he instead a servant of Dionysus?
  13. What about those strawberries, huh?
  14. What does it mean that Tadzio looks pale and sickly up close (in the elevator?)
  15. Why IS Tadzio a boy?
    1. “Even today, some critical guides to Death in Venice explain it principally as an allegorical study of artistic creativity and its pitfalls, or as a modern interpretation of classical myth. These interpretations can be defended, but they tended to overlook the obvious fact that Aschenbach’s predicament would never have seemed so dire or his obsession so doomed if its object had been a teenage girl instead of a boy.” – from a review by Andrew O’Hehir
  16. Why does Aschenbach seem uninterested in the fact that Tadzio is a boy? Why is there no soul-searching on his part over this homosexual attraction?
  17. Is the intellectual description of Socrates wooing Phaedrus Dionysian or Apollonian?
  18. Socrates is just creepy, right?
  19. Question of narration: is there an omniscient narrator, on whom we can rely? Or are we getting free-indirect discourse? When Aschenbach believes that Tadzio is returning his affections: is this true? Or is this simply what Aschenbach believes in order to not feel ridiculous?
    1. “(2) Tadzio’s smile is like that of Narcissus who sees his own reflection – he sees it on the face of the other / he sees this beauty in the impressions it produces. There is also coquetry and tenderness in this reciprocating smile with which Narcissus kisses the lips of his shadow.” (from “Working Notes for Death in Venice”)
  20. What role does the cholera epidemic play?
    1. Is the cholera epidemic a metaphor for the illness that is corrupting Aschenbach’s body and mind?
    2. Note too that the presence of cholera leads to a decline in morality in Venice: all sorts of terrible crimes happen in this new environment.
  21. What are we to make of the guitarist with the shock of red hair? From the lineage of the red-haired man at the opening of the novella?
  22. Does the final sickness that claims Aschenbach come from this guitarist?
  23. The pomegranate juice. Not a question, but let’s talk about its connection to spells and curses and unintended consequences.
  24. What do we make of Aschenbach’s dream? (It’s VERY Bacchanal.)
  25. Let’s talk about Aschenbach’s lust traversing from Apollonian to Dionysian.
  26. Aschenbach sure looks sharp in that RED tie, huh?
  27. What to make of the explicit connection between Aschenbach and the old/young man from the boat. Remember how the old/young man congratulated Aschenbach on his sweetheart?
  28. What does Aschenbach die of at the end of the novel: Is it cholera (unlikely). Is it a broken heart? (Maybe.) Has he been entirely consumed by Dionysus? Has he flirted with the divine foolishly and lost himself? (Probably.)
  29. Or does Aschenbach die when he sees his god, his Dionysus, the boy Tadzio, bullied and dominated by Jashu? Is there ANYTHING to the fact that there is a tension between Dionysus and Jesus (there’s a meme about all the places where there are narrative intersections between the Jesus story and the Dionysus story).
  30. Are the rotten strawberries the forbidden fruit? Are they the carrier of the cholera?
  31. Does art corrupt morality?


  • Conceives of Death in Venice 3 July 1911
  • “I had not planned anything less than telling the story of Goethe’s last love.”
  • In 1822 Goethe fell in love with Ulrike von Levetzow, a young girl. He proposed, but was spurned.
  • “Passion as confusion and degradation was actually the subject matter of my story. What I originally intended to tell was not homoerotic at all.” – from a letter to Carl Maria Weber, 4 July 1920
  • “As far as Death in Venice is concerned, I am hardly a competent interpreter today, I have almost forgotten the composition. But one thing I do know is that I have been misunderstood almost from the very beginning in the crudest manner. The embarrassing thing was that the ‘hieratic atmosphere’ was interpreted as a personal claim, when it was nothing more than mimicry. (Even Greek education was taken to be an end in itself, and yet it was only an aid in spiritual refuge for the person experiencing it. The character of the whole thing is more Protestant than classical.”) – from a letter to Paul Amann, 10 September 1915
  • “The traveler at the north cemetery in Munich, the gloomy ship from Pola, the old dandy, the suspicious gondolier, Tadzio and his family, the unsuccessful departure due to a mix-up with the luggage, the cholera, the honest clerk in the travel agency, the malicious itinerant singer, et cetera, et cetera – it was all there.” – from an autobiographical sketch written by Mann
  • “The personal is everything. The only true material is the personal.”
  • Sexuality “is the poison that lurks in all beauty.” – from a letter to Otto Grautoff, 1896
  • The realia of the author’s life and times frequently are textualized
  • Mann and Wladislav Moes: “He immediately had a weakness for this youth, he liked him inordinately, and he always watched him on the beach with his friends. He did not follow him through all of Venice, but the youth did fascinate him, and he thought about him often.” – from the unpublished memoirs of Mann’s wife, Katia Mann
  • “This is a book about Italy written by a German, a book about homosexual love written by a married man who fathered six children, a book about a man who debases himself and embraces his own death written by a man who lived to age 80 as the very embodiment of bourgeois literary respectability.” – from a review by Andrew O’Hehir
July 2018
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