‘But I counsel you, Critobulus, to go travelling for a year! You will need that much time at least before you are cured.’ ~ DEATH IN VENICE
Critobulus, a Greek historian, scholar and politician was one of the scribes who documented the Fall of Constantinople and the Ottoman takeover of Byzantium, and his brief mention in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice is no accident.
Venice and Constantinople share a morbid link. The city-state of the Doges was instrumental in the collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire, whose capital it sacked during the Fourth Crusade, then antagonized for two more centuries, facilitating the Ottoman breach. Aschenbach, Mann’s protagonist, invokes Critobulus during his stay in ill-fated Venice to frame the tragic nature of the submerged city, which serves as a backdrop for his life’s drama.
A writer, Aschenbach has come to the City of Water to convalesce from a crisis of spirit. Caught between wonder and depression, he observes the orgiastic gathering of Europe’s cultures in the canals and beaches of this ‘submerged queen of the Adriatic,’ in the perfect location – a setting exquisitely suited to his anthropological and universal scrutiny; a place of intrigue with a dark past, full of secret passions, longings and impulses that lie beneath a simmering surface, insinuating themselves between gestures, threatening to explode and inundate the world with their conflict and dis-ease.
The Polish boy-God Tadzio, one of the hotel guests, is at the epicenter of admiration. Aschenbach observes and fantasizes about the young man, in whom he sees beauty personified, divine greatness, intrigue that befits the setting.
Infused with Tadzio’s alluring esthetic, the account grows to encapsulate the city’s nature, a story that turns into the story of Venice itself – the city, the Republic, the mighty merchant power, the trade empire – expressed as a torrent of thoughts and emotions experienced by this most scintillated narrator who conveys them to the page with rapturous bliss.
Venice, we deduce from the narrative, reading between the lines, is a phenomenon, a legendary agglomeration of ideas, dreams and efforts put together to create an effect both lasting and marvelous, which the narrator beholds in awe. The city is a living, breathing creature of beauty. Suffering the challenges of time, scaling endless obstacles, it has something the narrator respects. He identifies with Venice, one can feel the resemblance between the city and him, Aschenbach, famed author, tireless champion of those who work themselves to the point of exhaustion, but ‘who yet, by some ecstasy of the will and by wise husbandry, manage at least for a time to force their work into a semblance of greatness.’
In other words, Venice commands Aschenbach’s attention because it has transcended its limitations, projecting to the world an image of grandeur, a legacy few cities can match.
Yet, despite its majesty, Venice crumbles under the weight of its history and reputation, no longer a dominant power but a life-size museum, a tourist destination for the well-to-do, a playground city of glass and gondolas. Its legacy is diluted, contaminated, and the plague (not only tourism, but the disease itself) ravages its streets and water supplies, threatening to shut down its sad industry. The air is oppressive, even before the cholera outbreak, not fit for personal industry, a situation both disoriented and disorienting, confusing, subject to the whims and fancies and interpretations of the passing crowds.
The visitors don’t help. They place an enormous strain on the city, dead set on having a cultural experience, a spiritual awakening, or just a good time, arriving in droves to partake in its splendor, forgetting that Venice, deep down, at heart, is not just an old relic, its soul wrinkly and tainted, but also a murderer, a fratricidal conspirator shaking with the repercussions of its crime, sinking ever so gradually into oblivion and decline, into the depths of a world it helped shape by undermining its sibling, Constantinople, back when the two powers were at odds.
The penny drops. The past is invoked and the story assumes cultural significance. Aschenbach is aware of the historical context. He doesn’t mention it, but he mentions Critobulus, the famed scribe of Constantinople. The morbid connection between the two cities is established. Aschenbach invokes – between the lines – what it means to be Venice, the extremes to which the city had to resort to claim the early-modern-period spotlight. The trials and tribulations, the balancing acts, the sacrifices – of oneself, of others – and the pitfalls that await all emerging champions, especially persistent ones… he’s an authority on the subject matter. A scribe himself, he’s the author of Frederick the Great’s story, a historical fiction narrative of the Prussian who laid the groundwork for another empire.
Aschenbach, it turns out, specializes on the moral quandaries of the ambitious. He is the author of the people, champion of the ‘heroism of weakness,’ of achievement borne out of a person’s willingness to stay the course (Durchhalten, said Frederick, and made it happen) and the world is not the same again. Stem the tide, shake the ground, change the course of history. Aschenbach is in tune with the politics and psychology of the times, foreseeing the political storm that brews around the Continent – the Prussian rise to power, the insidious advance of nationalism – about which he writes with eloquence. His visit to Venice gives him a fitting backdrop for his caveats. The submerged queen of the Adriatic stands in for Europe. He chronicles the city’s decline, the sadness of its shadows, the beauty of its tenacity, its adulterated resolve, warning us of what’s to come not through the allegory of the plague alone – ‘the state of crisis into which the city had been plunged, led … to an activation of dark and antisocial forces’ – but also in the form of his own person. A man at the top of his game, Aschenbach commands the trust and respect of the youth of Europe, but also represents a dead end. His attempts to deal with the exigencies of his fame have led him down an impossible path. His health suffers, his life’s anecdote is a warning against the flirtation with the ‘ideal.’ Getting carried away by idealism is dangerous, he implies. An abyss swallows all who are tempted.
Swept by the force of beauty, keen to capture its form with his sharp intellect and keen tongue, Aschenbach scrutinizes the boy-God Tadzio and the other hotel guests, experiencing what Venice experienced long ago, what the descendants of Frederick the Great will experience in due course: the rapture of chasing perfection as one understands it, followed by decline, painful and inevitable.
The time is fitting: just before the Great War. (The novella was published in 1912, a testimony to Mann’s prescient nature.) A conflagration brews, the signs are clear, if one pays attention. Europe’s ideologies rumble, eager to make their mark, to rise above the din and be counted. Aschenbach scrutinizes all events, noting down people’s actions, listening with intent, aware of the passions that drive them. He understands a challenger’s hunger to rule, to get it right, the urge not to stray or falter as one’s predecessors did – as the great cities of bygone times did – and yet, when his mood darkens and his soul demands fresh air, a little invigoration, where has he ended up? In the sinking stinking aging beauty queen of the Adriatic, contemplating the oppression with which her majesty drapes him.
Venice’s fratricidal past cannot be erased. Its spent empire is too ubiquitous to hide. The way to legacy passes through the swamp of conspiracy, fanfare, pomp, carnival, occasions infused with the ridiculous and the sublime, leading to a momentary rise to greatness, a great triumph, and from there on to the agonizing demise that awaits all champions and villains, heroes and beasts.
Yes, dear scholar, dear scribe, go traveling for a year, seek the cure to the ailment that eats at you, bearing in mind that the stories you tell, the histories you record and immortalize, the events you have saved for posterity, everything you have seen and heard and noted down and commented on will catch up with you. Bow your head and let your choices take you where time takes all angels, soaring and fallen. The abyss awaits all who dare to dream, who dare to aspire and reach for something beyond their fastidious routines. It beckons them to surrender and be swept away so that a city may fall, letting another rise in its place.
So says our esteemed narrator, in so many words.
London is a grand city, one of the world’s capitals. It is held in high esteem, envied and admired at the same time, a mighty veteran grinding its way into the future, its situation complicated, the balance it needs to strike particularly fine. Like an aging lord clinging to power, it poses a threat to many, while suffering those who are eager to see it go. It is not dead yet, grinding away like a machine – sometimes as exuberant as a youth, despite its age – so there is no way to tell how far it will go or what its efforts will amount to.
What is certain is that it, too, is engaged in a conspiracy to assume power and commandeer, if not dominate, its surroundings. Obsessed with influence and prestige, with a fleeting form of beauty, as it sees and understands it, and with the ability to do as it pleases because it can, London turns on those who don’t see eye to eye with it. Hubris drives its actions, which is the price of ambition. Greed and power take over, testing clarity, resolve. The rifts are deep, made graver by the ease with which the city dejects alliances and friendships. Its nonchalance is unsettling, deeply frustrating. A cosmopolitan capital like no other, one would expect it to draw in the rest of the world, especially its neighbors, yet it threatens to do the exact opposite, acting as the epicenter of mindsets that threaten to tear Britain from the Continent, all in the name of a chance to reclaim lost glory, abstract sovereignty. Driven by a foolish but natural impulse, not peculiar to it alone, this city does what other seats of power did over the centuries, vested in righteousness. Overestimating its position, it undermines those it needs.
The choice is disappointing but not shocking, a stance that may come back to haunt it, if not soon, then in due course.
When I say London, of course, I mean the seat of power the city hosts and the interests that operate through it. London itself is a multicultural entity that thrives on collaboration, but the governments and gilds it plays host to are subject to darker impulses, driven by geopolitics. As the capital of a united kingdom, London is more than just another city. It is the UK in more than one way, and the UK – like Venice and Constantinople before it – has a legacy to live up to, interests to champion. Powerful forces guide the city’s actions, its position framed by choices on the international level, in terms of the country at large. Its impact is global and multifarious.
In those terms, in the hands of interests larger than the boroughs that make up the Greater London Area and the citizens that comprise them, London pursues a dubious path, even though its constituency supports an inclusive approach. Determined by the legacy of empire and the ambition of those dreaming of bygone glory – or saving face in the wake of having lost it – London’s course resembles that of Venice, and it’s a sign of where things are going, how things might end, though no one knows for certain.
Time will tell, and so will the scribes. Their records and observations bring any city’s story to life. The scribes will chronicle London’s progress, creating a record and account of its choices, a tale to match those of Venice and Constantinople, chief cities of their time.
Such is the fate of instrumental cities, filled with tragic irony. Their beauty contingent not on their power, per se (power comes and goes, and so does empire), it’s their legend that counts to this day, a quality most adamant and precious. Legend is what matters – the stories and reputation, the sensations they cause through their real and remembered and even their imagined form. Beauty is entailed in form, in shape captured and made relatable, seized by an imagination that transcribes an idea to reality, rendered eternal. It resides in an object’s ability, any object’s – be it a person, a city, a noble cause, a book or even a vacation, be it short or long – to conjure a feeling of transcendence, a motion forward and upward. Celebrated achievement survives the centuries, inspiring the generations. A stab at a new course, come what may, is how beauty expresses itself, even when framed with the plague.
Thomas Mann’s message is compelling. His protagonist and narrator, Aschenbach, is in a fading city during a cholera outbreak. Death in Venice, plain and simple. Death is inevitable, the fall certain, but the outcome can only vary. We have options, even when all seems lost.
In fact, there’s a way to circumvent the abyss and postpone the end, anticipating better days. At least, one can always hope, as Aschenbach insinuates.
Unless, of course, one is eager to risk it all and take the plunge.
In such cases, one lunges forth with abandon, come what may. Life, it seems, is a blend of risks, errors and reconciliation, the outcome in the balance, tantalizing. Beauty lies in its ability to induce action, to convince the hand to take charge, wager it all for a chance at something great. To convince the mind and body to stay the course and advance with style, fall with grace when the time comes, and rise anew, if possible, stronger than yesterday – or, if not possible, to cheer on those who do, welcoming them to the fore. Celebrate tomorrow’s hope, all things fresh and uplifting. Venerate the boy-God, the world’s youth. The world is a massive whirlwind expressed in a billion storms and turbulences, desires and complications. Siblings compete, people hurt, cities do battle with each other, rising and falling, and so do histories and cultures, legends and civilization. People travel to the most unlikely places, generating sagas. What survives are their tales and legacies.
Momentum and risk, in other words, are the world’s driving forces. Inertia is not an option. With perseverance and a little luck, our minute actions come together. No matter who we are, we go beyond what we deemed possible, breaking boundaries. We turn into the toast of the town, the beacon others look to when charting their course. Our choices matter, our countenance a frame of reference, a cultural barometer.
And when the time comes for us to pass away, we do so with everyone’s eyes on us.
Heroes know when it’s time to depart, making way for the new generation.
As Aschenbach notes:
‘The beautiful are modest.’
Indeed. Anything but, and they can’t be beautiful – merely good-looking, ephemeral, and, no matter their grand stature, inconsequential.
Which makes one wonder. Perhaps the only beauty our countries and cities can speak of involves the modesty of their people – not the times they went after each other but when they were able to enjoy each other’s company and bring out the best in one another, inspiring admiration, not envy.
Beauty is a rare quality, after all.