Philip Kitcher on beauty and love in Death in Venice

Deaths in Venice

This week our featured book is Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach by Philip Kitcher. Today, we have an excerpt from “Beauty,” the second chapter of Deaths in Venice, in which Kitcher discusses the philosophical concepts of love and beauty Thomas Mann deals with in his novella.

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Philip Kitcher

Aschenbach, von Aschenbach, is introduced to us as one who has dedicated his art to moral education, although we do not know the extent to which he has refined the norms current in his society. His life, too, insofar as it is lived in public, moves gracefully through the bourgeois world. We might worry a little about the circumstances under which the finely chiseled prose is generated—and not just that final page and a half on the beach—the hours of dedicated and often painful struggle. Perhaps the contrast between the grace of the surface and the austere discipline behind it is itself a kind of confidence trick. The major question to Aschenbach’s successful reconciliation of the roles of ideal artist and ideal citizen is, however, posed by the embodiment of beauty in Tadzio not, in the first place, because of the direction of the longings evoked but because of the moral obfuscation to which it leads. One moved by beauty to perceive the good would not connive at the venal deceptions of the Venetian authorities.

The perception of the boy convinces—or perhaps reminds—Aschenbach that there is a kind of beauty—call it “higher beauty”—to which his prose has hitherto been inadequate. Even in the presence of that higher beauty, Aschenbach fails to capture it—and recognizes his own failure. On the evening when he waits anxiously for the Poles to return, the evening that will extort from him the self-confession of his love for the boy, that awareness is painful. “He [Tadzio] was more beautiful than it is possible to say, and Aschenbach felt, with pain as on many previous occasions, that words can only praise the beauty conveyed through the senses [die sinnliche Schönheit] but cannot fully reproduce it.” The struggles of the past decades have been so hard precisely because Aschenbach has striven to find the closest verbal approximation to higher beauty, persevering even though his efforts always disappoint (“Durchhalten!”). Tadzio’s presence is an opportunity to pursue this task, perhaps an impossible one, yet further, and the newly felt pain is not merely the result of a lover’s fears (Has the beloved left Venice?) but the realization that his words cannot match what is directly before him.

A very specific conception of the artist-educator, the Erzieher, is at work here. Art, at its greatest, is not simply the free creation of beauty but the creative response to a prior perception of higher beauty, a response that itself makes beauty accessible to those who have not had such perceptions. To play the role fully, a writer must reproduce higher beauty completely. Even though gestures and approximations may convey something, more is always demanded.

The “obituary” chapter provides enough clues to attribute this self-conception to Aschenbach during the decades in which he crafted the works that have brought him renown. After his encounter with Tadzio, however, the conception is focused with ideas from Plato he may never previously have made explicit. Greek references begin to appear in his private characterizations of the boy, as Aschenbach sits at breakfast the morning after he first observed Tadzio: the rest of the family is assembled, but the “little Phaeacian” is late. When he does appear, the writer studies the “godlike beauty” of the youth, whose head is that of Eros. Later, Aschenbach observes the comradeship of Tadzio and Jaschu as they stroll along the beach with their arms around each other (each other’s shoulders?), and Jaschu bestows a kiss. The observer rehearses a playful warning, quoting the words Xenophon attributes to Socrates when Critobulus supposedly stole a kiss from a beautiful young man—an occasion for the philosopher-educator to remind his interlocutors of the importance of self-discipline and restraint in the presence of beauty. Aschenbach’s thoughts move from a generalized characterization of the youth in terms of Greek mythology to the perspective of Socrates, first as rendered by Xenophon and then by the influential teacher’s more prominent disciple—Plato.

After the return from his abortive attempt to flee Venice, Aschenbach plunges into his Greek idyll, and, seated on the beach, he muses on the role of the senses and of the beauties they disclose in the most intellectual endeavors. He looks toward Tadzio, and he seems to be looking on Beauty itself. The Platonic allusions flood in. Thoughts that the sun diverts the attention from the intellectual to the physically embodied give way to the judgment that observation of physical things is necessary for the spiritual quest:

Only through the help of the body is the soul able to lift itself up to higher reflections. Surely the love-god does as the mathematicians do, when they show untalented children pictures of the pure Forms: so too the god deploys the figure and color of human youth to make the spiritual visible to us, using form and coloration as tools in prodding our memory, by decorating them with all the sheen of Beauty itself, so that the sight of them will consume us with pain and hope.

Plato’s vision of the world of Pure Forms, observed before birth and recalled to us as we are cleverly prodded to remember what we once saw—as, in the Meno, Socrates leads the slave boy to geometrical knowledge—is already in Aschenbach’s mind, and it becomes explicit almost immediately. The sound of the sea and the glitter of the sunlight transport him in thought to a Greek landscape, scene of the only Platonic dialogue set al fresco. Using fragments of the Symposium as well as of the Phaedrus, he reflects on love and virtue and beauty.

According to the Phaedrus, higher beauty is associated with the most fundamental values, with wisdom, justice, and goodness, so that the perception of higher beauty is simultaneously our way of having access to these values: beauty, unlike wisdom or goodness, can be perceived with the senses. Hence, in apprehending and communicating beauty, the artist would fulfill his function as educator—he would build those “beautiful bridges” of which Mann wrote in his Notizbuch ruminations. The ideal artist would seek out the objects in which higher beauty is most manifest, for reproducing their beauty is the optimal way to carry out the artist-educator’s appointed task. As he sits on the beach, calling up the Platonic tradition offers Aschenbach a reassuring identification of those privileged objects.

Higher beauty is most accessible in the human form, indeed in boys and young men. For, on the Platonic account, sensible manifestations of higher beauty should kindle love, love not simply directed at the object perceived but at the qualities it embodies. Erotic yearnings are bound up with the recognition of higher beauty, but the erotic response must e of a special sort, one that is not debased or corrupted. Supposing that the perception of higher beauty generates love facilitates Aschenbach’s conclusion that other human beings are especially suitable as tools for prodding our recollection of Beauty, and it is not hard to understand the specific focus on the young. Less easy to understand is the step that takes us to the young (postpubescent) male as the ideal vehicle for the perception of higher beauty.

In the Symposium and Phaedrus, the dialogues most concerned with the exploration of love, the dialogues Mann studied as he was writing Death in Venice, the priority of homosexual love is simply taken for granted. The Phaedrus discussion is, however, as we have already seen (in section 4 of chapter 1) much concerned with distinguishing between properly disciplined love and the undisciplined love that consumes those who are profane, loose, and corrupt: this is the point of the simile of the team of horses that runs through Socrates’ second long speech. If there is an argument for giving precedence to homosexual love in the apprehension of higher beauty—rather than simply the expression of a fashionable aristocratic Athenian prejudice—it lies, I suggest, in the thought that, while the perception of higher beauty must kindle love, the love so inspired must be controlled and disciplined.

Two strands in ancient thought elevate the love of men for youths by emphasizing the incompleteness of heterosexual love. Women are taken to lack the qualities of intellect and character essential to the full erotic relationship. Thus, in Plutarch’s Dialogue on Love, one of Mann’s important sources, Protogenes, the spokesman for the superiority of homosexual relationships, characterizes desires for women in unflattering terms: “even if they turn out well, one may enjoy only physical pleasure and the satisfaction of a ripe body.” Intercourse with women is viewed as a tiresome necessity, something that cannot be avoided if humanity is to continue but, because of the intellectual and moral inequalities between the partners, can be nothing more than a physically satisfying act. Diotima’s speech in the Symposium obliquely makes that point when she emphasizes the superiority of that form of reproduction in which the “souls” of “descendants” are shaped by the ideas and example of a great teacher. Thus homosexual love is superior because it is not reducible to mere physical release and also because it cannot be aimed at the inferior sort of “immortality,” that obtained through begetting children.

These background ideas impose demands on the character and expression of homosexual love, demands that Aschenbach appears to accept. If the superiority is to be taken seriously, the homosexual relationship must be one in which the lover educates the beloved, “urging him on the path to excellence.” Physical contact, should there be any, is only justifiable if it is bound up in this educational mission. Hence, the emphasis on disciplined restraint, an ideal condition made vivid in Alcibiades’ description of his night with Socrates. Plato makes it clear that there is no doubt of Socrates’ delight in the youth’s beauty or of his love for Alcibiades. Despite Alcibiades’ open invitation to sexual relations, his lover remains aloof, and Alcibiades concludes his account of their night together by remarking that he might as well have slept with his brother or his father.

Aschenbach wants to practice this severe discipline. His failure to normalize his relations with Tadzio, to place a hand on head or shoulder and to begin conversation with him, indicates his failure to achieve the Socratic condition. Instead, as he apparently discovers, his perception of the boy’s beauty entangles him in erotic yearnings of the classically despised kind, yearnings that overwhelm him and ultimately challenge his self-conception as moral educator. After the physical collapse at the fountain, he returns to Socratic language, this time in parody, arguing the anti-Socratic conclusion that perception of higher beauty inevitably involves submission to erotic mastery and thus moral corruption. At the end, Schopenhauer’s suspicions about the power of the sexual impulse triumph over Plato’s vision of a form of love that will guide the artist-educator to the perception and communication of beauty.

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