Decadent and Aesthetic writing was borne of a tumultuous period at the end of the nineteenth century – a period often referred to as the fin de siècle. The cultural politics of the time were represented in the themes appropriated in the work, such as artifice, a yearning for ideal beauty and a desire to transcend nature through beauty. The Aesthetes and Decadents were interested in the grotesque, evil and loss of innocence’s. This leaning towards darkness, and the transient imagery and melancholy meditation on the world was omnipresent in many of the artists’ lives as well as their work – a fact which did not escape the poet W.B. Yeats who described his Decadent contemporaries as “The Tragic Generation.”
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann is a Decadent meditation on the downfall of man. The main character is an old German writer named Gustav Von Aschenbach. In an attempt to become more inspired, he decides to travel as he believes the change in scenery may help him to write. His arrival in Venice heralds his downfall. From a distance, he falls passionately in love with a fourteen year old boy named Tadzio, although he at first denies this to himself. As he becomes more enamoured with the boy, his behaviour becomes more extreme – he watches him play on the beach, and follows his family around Venice. An epidemic of cholera invades the city but Aschenbach’s passion for Tadzio runs too deeply for him to leave. He subsequently catches the disease, dying a victim of his unrequited passion. An overt tactic Mann uses to represent a sense of place influencing his writing is in the title – Death in Venice. By fore-grounding the name of the city in the title, Mann is highlighting the city’s key role in the unfolding narrative. Mann aligns the word ‘Venice’ with the word ‘death’ in the title. This creates a relationship between these two words – the word ‘death’ strongly infuses the word ‘Venice’ with all its connotations. Death and decay is an important idea within the context of Decadence. Aschenbach’s descent into degradation begins after his arrival in the city. The Aesthetic and Decadent traits are present within the context of Venice – his loss of dignity and subsequent degradation, also the idea that this boy prompts in Aschenbach a yearning for his ideal beauty.
The fact that the city is then infected by this filthy disease, which goes onto kill many, highlights the dankness of the city. It also contrasts with the visual beauty of the city. This is an apt oxymoron in the context of Aestheticism and Decadence – a terrible beauty – a danger concealed by an external beauty. The concept brought into play by the question is a notion of ‘sense of place.’ The use of the word ‘sense’ is highly appropriate in the context of Aesthetic and Decadent discourse, as the importance of the senses is highlighted within this type of art. Therefore, what needs to be considered is not only the use of place names, but the writer’s sensory perception of the places and the ways in which he uses the cities in the text to represent certain ideals based on his own feelings and interpretation of the place.
While Venice clearly becomes the place of Aschenbach’s downfall, it is not the only place which influences Mann’s Aesthetic and Decadent writing. Within the first few lines, Mann establishes the location of Aschenbach as “…his house in Prince Regent Street, Munich…” . This sets up the binary opposition between Munich and Venice, self control and the slavery of the self to depraved passion. One of the ways in which Mann establishes Venice as the literary landscape for Decadent and Aesthetic writing is through the language he appropriates in describing each city. At the beginning of the text, Aschenbach is frustrated at his lack of inspiration. In order to try and alleviate his inability to write, he takes a walk around the city:
But towards Aumeister the paths were solitary and still, and Aschenbach strolled thither…By the time he reached the North Cemetery, however, he felt tired, and a storm was brewing above Fohring; so he waited at the stopping-place for a train to carry him back to the city.
In reading this passage, it becomes ironic that that the text is entitled Death in Venice as the protagonist seems to be dying in Munich; the loss of his creative abilities, his loss of physical energy – the end of his walk as he reaches the cemetery and his subsequent need to use the train to get home. There is almost a sense of elan – indeed, a sense of no sensory involvement with the surroundings. Mann uses no hyperbole or rhetoric, it is not a gushing description. This can be contrasted with the description of Venice:
He saw it once more, that landing-place that takes the breath away, that amazing group of incredible structures the Republic set up to meet the awe-struck eye of the approaching seafarer: the airy splendor of the palace and Bridge of Sighs…