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- What is the grave threat that hangs over the peace of Europe?
- Is there a connection between the decay of Aschenbach and the decay of Europe?
- Northern austerity and Southern sensuality.
- How important is the Byzantine detail? Doesn’t it separate us away from Christianity, in a sense?
- 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.)
- 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?)
- In the late nineteenth century Munich had a reputation as one of the most sexually liberal cities in Germany.
- One of the last German states to re-criminalize homosexuality.
- King Ludwig II: One of the gayest kings to ever queen.
- Reigned: 10 March 1864 – 13 June 1886
- His younger brother (and successor) Otto: insane
- 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.
- Had Neuschwanstein Castle built
- 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.
- Broke off an engagement thusly: “The main substance of our relationship has always been … Richard Wagner’s remarkable and deeply moving destiny.”
- 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.
- 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.)
- The connection with India: it is claimed that Dionysus created/refined the Bacchanal in India.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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?
- Or, rather: Is Mann’s argument that Aschenbach had never been a true artist until he was corrupted by immoral desire?
- “The fame of the artist a farce, the mass reliance on him stupidity.” (from “Working Notes for Death in Venice”)
- What do the men on the boat represent? (Mythological characters, in my reading: satyrs and other attendants on Dionysus.
- What of the old man poorly disguised as a young man?
- The gondolier is Charon, right? And a connection to the red-haired man with his (the gondolier’s) reddish eyebrows.
- 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?
- What about those strawberries, huh?
- What does it mean that Tadzio looks pale and sickly up close (in the elevator?)
- Why IS Tadzio a boy?
- “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
- 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?
- Is the intellectual description of Socrates wooing Phaedrus Dionysian or Apollonian?
- Socrates is just creepy, right?
- 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?
- “(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”)
- What role does the cholera epidemic play?
- Is the cholera epidemic a metaphor for the illness that is corrupting Aschenbach’s body and mind?
- 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.
- 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?
- Does the final sickness that claims Aschenbach come from this guitarist?
- The pomegranate juice. Not a question, but let’s talk about its connection to spells and curses and unintended consequences.
- What do we make of Aschenbach’s dream? (It’s VERY Bacchanal.)
- Let’s talk about Aschenbach’s lust traversing from Apollonian to Dionysian.
- Aschenbach sure looks sharp in that RED tie, huh?
- 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?
- 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.)
- 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).
- Are the rotten strawberries the forbidden fruit? Are they the carrier of the cholera?
- 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
I like lists as much as the next person. They’re fun to corroborate or argue with, letting our own personal prejudices run free (any list that slams Philip Roth or John Updike is a list I will probably frame and hang on a wall if I was the kind of guy who (a) framed things; (b) had a hammer ; (c) knew where the hammer was that I’m pretty sure we bought when we bought the house because I thought, “I’m probably going to be hammering all the time!”; (d) hung framed things from a hammered nail in a wall) while also providing the extra reach with which to pat our own backs.
My argument, though, is with this constant competition for the Great American Novel.
This is a terrible game to play. It feels, to me, as if the assumption is: there’s just one American story to tell and once we’ve identified it we can finally be DONE, you guys. That’s often how we treat women and minorities in the arts: once a slot is filled, whether it’s a woman-centric television show or a show with a minority family, Those With the Power in entertainment tend to not want to pursue other voices from those communities (but God forbid we don’t examine MINUTELY the inner lives of men of a certain age and the challenges they face in a world that they helped shape but boy were they not expecting to see two guys getting married! “How many shows do we have starring gruff white men in their 50s?” “We just had to fire Alec Baldwin.” “Then double the number of shows and send him a muffin basket.”). Instead, their response is, “No thanks! We’ve got [“Girls,” or “Sex in the City,” or “The Cosby Show” which, by the way, was 20+ years ago and “Scandal” is a terrific TV series with a strong black female lead but when’s the last time you saw a Cherokee family settle in to all-you-can-eat breadsticks and salad at the local Olive Garden? This has been Consciousness Raising with Mike Bevel, and I’d like to turn the floor over to some of our spoken-word poets before we break for some gluten-free vegan desserts in the Let’s Just Shoot Ourselves in the Face Hall here at the Unitarian church]!”
Where was I?
Oh, yeah: the Great American Novel. Stop looking for it. There are a great number of great American novels and the only thing they all have in common is none of them have the words “Rabbit” or “Portnoy” in the title. Another trap these lists sometimes fall into is the Overachieving Olympics, where the Great American Novel isn’t so much Great, but Hard — and I’m not being lazy and I’m not suggesting I don’t like a challenge because I sat through a performance of a capella choral arts atonal music so how dare you. But I feel like if you’re a novel that’s going to strive to be the Great American Novel, then you have to be a novel that speaks to a great portion of Americans and I’m sorry, “The Ambassadors,” by Henry James, you are too interested in yourself (which, ironically, is how most Americans navigate the world: being too interested in themselves and super-sizing things) and don’t pay back the close attention that a Great American Novel should if I even believed in the Great American Novel, which I don’t, so why are we even HAVING this conversation?
I guess the point is — and I do have one — read good novels not because they tell great American stories but because they tell great Human stories and while we all may not share a neighborhood or a cholesterol count, we share humanity; and art — specifically novels in this meandering argument and god bless you if you made it this far — is a safe place to explore what makes us human and why it matters.
Here are various translations of Matthew 11:12:
King James: And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.
The New International Version: From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence,[a] and violent people have been raiding it.
Douay-Rheims: And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.
The Douay-Rheims is the edition O’Connor owned, and it’s that translation that inspired her title. (I had hoped to find some amazing hidden meaning behind her use of Douay-Rheims. Instead, it’s probably just a case of, “That’s the Bible that was in her house at the time.” I’m like this with books in translation: I like my War & Peace translated by Constance Garnett, thankyouverymuch.)
All three translations agree on the opening. But it’s what happens to the kingdom of heaven where we see the difference: “take it by force,” “raiding it,” or “bear it away.” Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the two other translations say, though: Flannery O’Connor was inspired by the Douay-Rheims translation. For her, the violent bear it away.
Whether you agree with Flannery O’Connor’s worldview or not: in the universe of The Violent Bear it Away, Bishop gets a happy ending. He’s baptized. I love every one one of you who bristles and recoils and wants to run from a philosophy that treats drowning as a sacred right. Flannery O’Connor is not the writer for you.
In the world of the novel, Rayber represents Evil. He’s not the rapist; he’s not the voice of the Devil. But he’s Evil because he wants to interfere with the divine work of the prophet. (And in the world of the novel, the Tarwaters are prophets.) Secular humanism that seeks to replace God’s hands with… well, whatever is in Rayber’s hands: that’s not going to work. That Bishop has Down’s syndrome is a blessing in the world of this book because he can’t be corrupted by the teacher. He’s a perfect vessel for baptising.
It’s easy to mistake O’Connor as simply a Southern Gothic writer, with her cast of grotesques. And I think that might be how she was able to hobnob with so many intellectuals. As the Marquise de Merteuil says (paraphrased) in Les Liaisons dangereuses: Most intellectuals are intensely stupid. They missed O’Connor’s message: that the works of God are mysterious and violent and even if it costs your life, it’s the absolute smallest price one can pay for redemption and salvation and revelation. It’s rare to reach the end of any piece by O’Connor and not have the main character dead, murdered, maimed, or utterly transformed in the most painful of ways. Faith for O’Connor is an absolute, totalizing force. One has it or one doesn’t, and the transition from one state of belief to another often comes as a violent shock to the person experiencing it.
The point was made in the discussion that Flannery O’Connor was a terrific writer, but a poor communicator. I’ve given that a lot of thought in the days that have gone by and I’m not sure I entirely agree. A mistake we might make in reading is assuming that this must all be metaphor; but there’s little metaphoric about the novel: The Tarwaters are prophets. God exists and is a violent force to be reckoned with. She communicates that all the way through. She wants us to know that the Tarwaters are connected to God. But, if you are repulsed by the novel, it’s more than likely because you can’t identify with a world in which prophets exist. (This is not a bad thing or a good thing; it’s just a Thing.)
Knowing what O’Connor is saying isn’t the same as approving. And you can get to the end of the novel, and you can think all of your thoughts and come to a discussion and think some new thoughts and still fight with the book afterwards. She’s saying uncomfortable, noxious things for a lot of readers. But O’Connor’s method of salvation isn’t love in the way we think of it — images of Jesus hugging children and hymns about caring — it’s an older, darker kind of love. It’s the kind of love God demanded from Abraham when he told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.
If you can bear to read through the novel again — and many of you probably can’t — read it as if every thing is true and has happened. That’s not going to make the novel easier to read. It’s going to make it harder to handle. But you’ll be reading the novel the way O’Connor intended. She is not interested in ambiguity. She’s not playing a game with the reader where it might be this or it might be that. She rarely hides behind metaphor. We bring that ourselves, I think.
And, for something COMPLETELY different, I’ll end with this poem by A.A. Milne:
Said to her Nan:
“Please will you tell me how God began?
Somebody must have made Him. So
Who could it be, ‘cos I want to know?”
And Nurse said, “Well!”
And Ann said, “Well?
I know you know, and I wish you’d tell.”
And Nurse took pins from her mouth, and said,
“Now then, darling, it’s time for bed.”
Had a wonderful plan:
She would run round the world till she found a man
Who knew exactly how God began.
She got up early, she dressed, and ran
Trying to find an Important Man.
She ran to London and knocked at the door
Of the Lord High Doodleum’s coach-and-four.
“Please, sir (if there’s anyone in),
However-and-ever did God begin?”
But out of the window, large and red,
Came the Lord High Coachman’s face instead.
And the Lord High Coachman laughed and said:
“Well, what put that in your quaint little head?”
Elizabeth Ann went home again
And took from the ottoman Jennifer Jane.
“Jenniferjane,” said Elizabeth Ann,
“Tell me at once how God began.”
And Jane, who didn’t much care for speaking,
Replied in her usual way by squeaking.
What did it mean? Well, to be quite candid,
I don’t know, but Elizabeth Ann did.
Elizabeth Ann said softly, “Oh!
Thank you Jennifer. Now I know.”
It’s Steve’s fault. It’s always Steve’s fault. “The Turn of the Screw,” he said, “is just a straight-forward ghost story. The governess isn’t mad. The ghosts are real. Anything else is post-modern supposition.” So we’re in an argument. My hope is that by the end of this, I’ll have proven — to Steve, and, I guess, to myself, because Steve is usually right, and he may be right this time, but I don’t want him to be — that Henry James meant for The Turn of the Screw to be more than just a ghost story.
What follows will be the emails I send to Steve from each section I read through, and Steve’s responses.
So Casaubon’s a vampire. No one else appears to be talking about this (or a Google search of the phrase “Casaubon is a vampire” brought up little in the way of conversation– strike that: investigative scholarly research). so I thought I’d lead with my groundbreaking discovery. I won’t even call it a theory because, you guys: seriously.
I’m reading Middlemarch because it’s sort of ridiculous that I haven’t. “Your whole Victorian…thing?” a friend once said; “Completely unvalid until you’ve read Middlemarch.”
“I don’t think unval–”
“UN!” he said dramatically before giving me a finger-poke to the chest “VALID!”