From Death in Venice to Empathy in Venice

The city of Venice itself is the most significant symbol in Thomas Mann’s story. Even in 1912, when Death in Venice was published, Venice was sinking into the swamp on which in was built, sinking back into the unexpressed in the sense of that which is present but unacknowledged, one’s hidden and undeclared commitment, that which one does not even know that one does not know. For example…

Turner on Venice

A View of Venice by Turner

Venice is the place of Othello’s insane jealousy of faithful a derivative and deviation of love that goes horribly wrong with awful consequences Desdemona. Though falling short of the clinical madness celebrated by the symbolists, Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice evokes a dialectic of resentment at social injustice, in the context of the greater madness of prejudice and the destructive letter of the law. George Gordon, Lord Byron, himself an individual touched by fire (Jamison 1993) and a notorious manic depressive given to destructive furniture smashing rages, in his productive moments writes of the magic of Venice in a kind of travelogue (Beppo) and here of Venetian women:

I said that like a picture by Giorgione

Venetian women were, and so they are,

Particularly seen from a balcony

(For beauty’s sometimes best off afar),

And there, just like a heroine of Goldoni,

They peep from out the blind, or o’vr the bar;

And truth to say, they’re mostly very pretty,

And rather like to show it, more’s the pity!


The beauty from afar is analogous to that which Aschenbach conceives for Tadzio upon arriving in Venice. John Ruskin’s multiple volumes on The Stones of Venice (1851-1853) writes of

[…] half stagnant canals … villas sinking fast into utter ruin, black, and rent, and lonely … blighted fragment of gnarled hedges and broken stakes for their fencing … a few fragments of marble steps … not setting into the mud in broken joints, all a slope and slippery with green weeds … the view from the balcony is not cheerful: a narrow street … a ditch with slow current in it … a close small of garlic and crabs … much vociferation … down to the water, which latter we fancy for an instant has become black with stagnation [….] It is Venice. (1851/53: 413-15)

Ruskin describes a Venice of decay, stagnation, and ruin even in 1851.

Henry James visits Venice in 1869 writing:

Venice is quite the Venice of one’s dreams, but it remains strangely the Venice of dreams, more than of any appreciable reality. The mind is bothered with a constant sense of the exceptional character of the city: you can’t quite reconcile it with common civilization. It’s awfully sad too in its inexorable decay (1869: 134)

Marcel Proust reviews a translation of the Stones of Venice in 1906, though Swann’s Way is not published until 1913, so it is unlikely that Proust was on the radar for Mann.

Closer to Mann’s native tongue, Hugo von Hofmannsthal writes a fragment in 1892 on the death of the celebrated Venetian painter, Titian. The foil for the dialectic between the transfiguring beauty of art and the intoxicating and Dionysian life of the sensual, violent world of the senses outside of art is the androgynous boy Gianino, a foreshadowing of the Tadzio figure in Mann’s narrative if ever there was one. Hofmannstal’s imaginary Letter of Lord Chandos to Francis Bacon (1901) expresses the creative illness to which Hofmannsthal himself was subjected at that time. His breakdown in relation to community, language, people, the world of art, and his own mental integrity is expressed vividly:

But it is my inner self that I feel bound to reveal to you – a peculiarity, a vice, a disease of my mind if you like – if you are to understand that an abyss equally unbridgeable separates me from the literary works lying seemingly ahead of me and from those behind me (quoted in Broch 1951: 134).

Different than a modern day “identity crisis” as engaged by Erik Erikson, the idea of a creative illness – a mental breakdown from which the individual emerges with a renewed, reborn consciousness of purpose and contribution – has been documented extensively by Henri Ellenberger (1971). Not only did Freud and Jung have their own periods of intense struggle with personal demons, but David Hume, Theodor Fechner, Charles Darwin, William James, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Leo Tolstoy struggled with a creative illness form which they emerged with renewed vitality and productivity. The list goes on.

For purposes of this essay, a symbol is defined as the mark, the place, the form, at which and through which the intersection and correlation of two or more domains of experience are expressed. One set of relations is mapped to another set as in Kant’s notion of aesthetic ideas without necessarily being able conceptually to determine exhaustively in words what is being articulated. In that sense, the interpretation or exegesis of the symbol is just another symbol and extension of the symbol in a process of unlimited symbolization.

As a symbol Venice is one of those places at a boundary – we get to use the protean word “liminal” – ultimately the boundary between life and death, but also the self and other, unconscious and conscious, sea and dry land, past and the future. As with any symbol, the process is the point. Significantly enough, Aschenback, the protagonist, has no thought of death as his personal finitude in the narrative. None. No interest in death. No explicit engagement with the idea that he will die. No Heideggerian or proto-existentialist, Aschenbach has no relatedness to death. No intimations or mortality. There is one moment of despair in which Aschenbach feels that he does not want to go on living if the Polish family leaves the resort and Tadzio departs. However, this is an expression of loss of love, not strictly speaking relatedness to death.

For the complete essay click here: FromDeathInVeniceToEmpathyInVenice


Bernstein, Jay. (1992). The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno. Cambrdige, UK: Polity Press (Blackwell).

Broch, Hermann. (1947/50). Hugo von Hofmannsthal and his Time: The European Imagination 1860-1920 , tr. Michael P. Steinberg. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Byron, George Gordon, Lord. (1871). The Complete Poetical Works, ed. Jerome McGann, vol. IV. (Oxford 1986).

Ellenberger, Henri. (1971). The Discovery of the Unconscious. New York: Basic Books.

James, Henry. (1869). Letters of Henry James, ed. Leon Edel, 4 vols (London 1874-84), vol I.

Jamison, Kay Redfield. (1993). Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. New York: The Free Press (Simon and Schuster).

Mann, Thomas. (1912). “Der Tod in Venedig.” In Der Tod in Venedig und Andere Erzaehlungen. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Bucherei.

__________________. (1912a). Death in Venice, tr. Stanley Appelbaum. New York: Dover.

Ruskin, John. (1851/53). The Complete Works of John Ruskin, ed. Edward Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. London, 1903-912.

Sperber, Dan. (1975). Rethinking Symbolism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Symons, Arthur. (1919). The Symbolist Movement in Literature. New York: E.P. Dutton.

Tanner, Tony. (1992). Venice Desired: Writing the City. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. A splendid resource for all things Venetian which essentially informs the first part of my essay.

(c) Lou Agosta, Ph.D. This material is a work in progress for the Seattle Comparative Literature Conference on March 26 -29, 2015. Please let me have your comments.

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Categories: Empathy, Mental illness, narrative empathy

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1 reply

  1. Reblogged this on blackboxnurse and commented:
    Eloquent read.

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