Aschenbach’s Aesthetics: Echoes of Schiller and Winckelmann’s German Aesthetics in Death in Venice

In Death in Venice, Thomas Mann reveals the world of Gustav von Aschenbach “where blond, innocent representatives of an existence untroubled by much reflection…stand in contrast to artists burdened by too much knowledge and estranged from life” (Daemmrich 233). Characterized by his “tight fist” (Mann 13), Aschenbach is an accomplished, disciplined writer in search of inspiration; he follows his artistic longing to Venice where he discovers his aesthetic embodied in the young Tadzio. This aesthetic reveals not only Aschenbach’s formal concerns, but also a deeper longing for nature; ideas which can be further explored through the work of Friedrich Schiller and Johann Joachim Winckelmann.

The embodiment of Aschenbach’s aesthetic is introduced while he is vacationing in Venice. While reading the newspaper before dinner, Aschenbach “cast[s] an eye over the company” at his hotel, settling on a “long-haired boy of about fourteen” (Mann 44-5). Aschenbach’s initial description of Tadzio reveals his classically grounded aestheticism:

Aschenbach noted with astonishment that the boy was of a consummate beauty: his face–pale and charmingly reticent, ringed by honey-colored hair, with a straight nose, lovely mouth, and an expression of gravity sweet and divine–recalled Greek statuary of the noblest period, yet its purest formal perfection notwithstanding it conveyed a unique personal charm such that whoever might gaze upon it would believe he had never beheld anything so accomplished, be it in nature or in art. (Mann 45)

In terms of form, Tadzio resembles “Greek statuary”: his face is pale like the surface of marble and his ringed hair recalls that of the Greco-Roman Hellenistic bronze sculpture, Spinario (Boy with Thorn). The association of Tadzio with statuary continues throughout the narrative as he is later described as being “a statue, a mere feast for the eyes—worthy of deeper consideration” (Mann 56-7), having “the head of an Eros with the creamy glaze of Parian marble” (Mann 52) and “armpits as smooth as a statue’s” (Mann 81). These formal elements of Greek statuary not only represent Tadzio aesthetically, but also infer his intrinsic characteristics: “charmingly reticent”, “sweet” and “divine” with “unique personal charm.” These characteristics suggest what Winckelmann describes in Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture as the “noble simplicity” and “quiet grandeur” of Greek statuary (30). Here, the beauty of Greek figures represent not merely a “superficial perfection” available to be “copied” but also an “idealized conception of beauty” in which “outer beauty” coincides with a “noble (inner) nature”, fusing “aesthetic” and “moral” perfection as well as “inner” and “outer” beauty (Johnson 91). Schiller also imagines the Greeks to have been “well-balanced, beautifully thinking people” who “as they embodied the ideal of a sound mind in a sound body, represented the ideal attitude required to integrate the sensuous and moral dimensions of the human psyche” (Wicks 45). By associating Tadzio with Greek statuary, Aschenbach is communicating his formal aesthetic while also revealing his longing for what Schiller describes as the “naive.”

According to Schiller, all poets can be classified as “naïve” (ancient) or “sentimental” (modern). The naïve poet is connected to nature, embodying a “childlike innocence”, following “simple nature” and “feeling” (Schiller 204). Schiller states that “nature had disappeared from our humanity, and we reencounter it in its genuineness only outside of humanity in the inanimate world” (194). This introduces the idea of the sentimental poet, who seeks connection through nature and natural (or naïve) objects. As the ancient Greeks managed not to lose the nature in their humanity (in remaining naïve) they also become a touchstone of nature which is what the sentimental poet seeks: “They felt naturally, we feel the natural…Our feeling for nature is like the sick person’s feeling for health” (195). This “longing for lost nature” ultimately manifests itself in modern sentimental art “through the nostalgic treatment of nature as idea or object” (Johnson 87). In Death in Venice, Aschenbach is the sentimental poet, immersed in the modern mentality, which has made him “more reflective”, “less natural”, and “less satisfied” with himself (and his art) (Wicks 48) which has led him to abandon his routine life in search of something else, something inspirational. The aesthetic that Tadzio presents is not just significant because of his beautiful form, but because of what his beautiful form entails:

It is not these objects, it is an idea portrayed by them that we cherish in them…They are what we were; they are what we should become once more. We were nature like them, and our culture should lead us along the path of reason and freedom back to nature. Thus they depict at once our lost childhood, something that remains ever dearest to us. (Schiller 180-1)

Naive objects “remind us of what we have lost and can never truly regain through art or through nature herself” (Johnson 90). Tadzio is a reminder of the youth, beauty, and natural-ness that Aschenbach desires but cannot recapture as a modern poet. Aschenbach’s “modernity” or “sentimentality” is depicted in the physical description of his face, hair, nose and mouth, which stand in contrast to the beautiful description of Tadzio’s “pale” face, “honey-colored” hair, “straight” nose and “lovely” mouth:

The hair brushed back, was thin at the crown but very thick and gray at the temples and framed a high, rugged, scarred-looking forehead. The gold frame of the rimless spectacles cut into the root of a strong, nobly aquiline nose. The mouth was large–now slack, now suddenly narrow and tight. (Mann 22-23)

The “rugged” and “scarred-looking” forehead of Aschenbach contrasts with the “pale” face of Tadzio; Aschenbach’s “thin”, “gray” hair possesses none of the naive splendor of Tadzio’s golden curls; his “aquiline”, curved nose does not retain the “straight” perfection of Tadzio’s; the “large”, over-used mouth (“now slack, now suddenly narrow and tight”) of Aschenbach betrays his lack of “charming reticence.” The beauty of youth cannot be regained once it has passed, just as the modern man cannot return to a naive state once he has disconnected from nature.

If the modern poet cannot return to a natural state, how does he satisfy his overwhelming desire? The problem of the modern poet is how to become “more attuned to our natural dispositions” as we “stand within a more highly civilized context” so we can “unite the best of both worlds”; the challenge is to acquire and preserve the Greeks’ “noble simplicity” and “tranquil grandeur” within a world of “advanced culture riddled with artificialities” (Wicks 48). The answer, perhaps, is an integration of both to create something “beyond” nature and art. In his initial description of Tadzio, Aschenbach believes “he had never beheld anything so accomplished, be it in nature or in art” (Mann 45). This “idealized conception of beauty”, a synthesis of moral content and sensuousness (Wicks 44) embodied in Tadzio (which Aschenbach feels exceeds that which can be found “in nature or in art”), echoes Winckelmann’s notion that in masterpieces of Greek art “connoisseurs and imitators find not only nature at its most beautiful but also something beyond nature, namely certain ideal forms of its beauty” which “come from images created by the mind alone” (28). What is required of the sentimental poet is not a return to nature, or the naive, but a syntheses of  “ancient simplicity and modern subjective inwardness” (Wicks 49):

Do not let it occur to you any longer to want to change places with nature. Instead, take nature up into yourself and strive to wed its unlimited advantages to your own endless prerogatives, and from the marriage of both strive to give birth to something divine. (Schiller 193)

As an artist, Aschenbach needs to chisel “with sober passion at the marble block of language” in order to “release the slender form he had beheld in his mind and would present to the world as an effigy and mirror of spiritual beauty” (Mann 81). He attempts this after becoming “intoxicated” (82) by Tadzio’s beauty on the beach; here, Aschenbach’s “pure feeling” becomes “pure thought” as he translates his ideas into words (“chiseling…at the marble block of language”), modeling his writing on the “boy’s physique” (Mann 85) letting:

[H]is style follow the lines of that body, which was he saw as godlike, and bear its beauty to the realm of the intellect…Never had he experienced the pleasure of the word to be sweeter, never had he known with such certitude that Eros is in the word than during those dangerously delightful hours when, seated at his rough table under the awning, in full view of his idol, the music of his voice in his ears, he formulated that little essay—a page and a half of sublime prose based on Tadzio’s beauty—the purity, nobility, and quivering emotional tension of which would soon win the admiration of many. (Mann 86)

Aschenbach almost seems to “sculpt” his language, creating a fusion of plastic and literary art as he “bears” Tadzio’s beauty to the “realm of intellect.” As he writes, he seems to experience some of Tadzio’s inherent “naive” characteristics, as the “pleasure of the word” is experienced as being “sweet.” The “little essay” that results, shares the “pure” and “noble” aspects of Tadzio’s beauty. Aschenbach has surrounded himself with the natural beauty of Tadzio, combined it with something of himself (his thoughts) and created something “sublime” (his essay): “Resurrecting the Greeks entails resurrecting them within a contemporary form, and this requires revising their attitudes compatibly to suit our own” (Wicks 50). 

While it appears that Aschenbach has achieved a syntheses of  “ancient simplicity and modern subjective inwardness” with his essay, by traveling towards a sensuousness that was repressed by his character before coming to Venice, he has begun to travel too far. He begins to become intoxicated by sensuousness and his passion for Tadzio: “For passion, like crime, is antithetical to the smooth operation and prosperity of day-to-day existence, and can only welcome every loosening of the fabric of society, every upheaval and disaster in the world” (Mann 100). Aschenbach begins to attempt a return to nature, to youth (which Schiller advises against) with the alteration of his appearance using makeup and hair dye. This return to nature, to the naïve, is of course impossible and leads into the “abyss”:

That nature you envy in things devoid of reason is not worthy of your respect or your longing. That nature lies behind you, it must forever lie behind you. Abandoned by the guide that deceived you, you have no other choice remaining than to take hold of the law with a free consciousness and will, or fall irretrievably into a bottomless abyss. (Schiller 193)

Schiller’s words are echoed in Aschenbach’s: “But form and innocence…lead to intoxication and desire; they may even lead a noble man to horrifying crimes of passion that his own beautiful rigor reprehends as infamous; they lead to the abyss; they too lead to the abyss” (Mann 137). Perhaps the triumph of Aschenbach’s “birth of something divine” (Schiller 193) is so satisfying that he desires to further immerse himself in beauty; a further immersion which ultimately leads to his destruction.

Although, in the end, Aschenbach is unable to balance his aesthetic with his natural longings, Mann, on the other hand proves to be successful. With Death in Venice, he has weaved a narrative in which physical beauty has been reproduced and transformed into a literary aesthetic, proving the proficiency of the modern sentimental poet, who has suffered a fall from nature through his interaction with reason yet has managed to transcend naïve poetry through the “marriage” of the “natural” and the “modern” resulting in the “birth of something divine” (Schiller 193). In this way, he becomes a “rhetorical sculptor” whose medium is “an aesthetic of spiritual beauty” (Johnson 92): “The ancient poets touch us through nature, through sensuous truth, through living presence; the modern poets touch us through ideas” (Schiller 201).


Featured Image Credit: Michelangelo, David, 1501-04

Recommended: Discussion of David by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Works Cited:

Daemmrich, Horst S. “Friedrich Schiller and Thomas Mann: Parallels in Aesthetics.” The Journal Of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 24.2 Winter 1965. 227-249. Web.

Johnson, Gary. “Death in Venice and the Aesthetic Correlative.” Journal of Modern Literature 27.3 (2004): 83-96. Web.

Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice. Trans. Michael Henry Heim. New York: Harper Collins, 2004. Print.

Schiller, Friedrich. “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry.” Essays. Trans. Daniel O. Dahlstrom. 

New York: Continuum, 1993. 179-260. Print.

Wicks, Robert. European Aesthetics: A Critical Introduction, from Kant to Derrida. London: Oneworld, 2013. Print.

Winckelmann, Johann Joachim. “Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and 

Sculpture.” The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Donald Preziosi. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. 27-34. Print.

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