copyright © 2007
in The Guardian
2 June 2007
Clearly we are all having a problem with Death
in Venice. Writing in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago, Ian
Bostridge (who plays the lead role in English National Opera's
staging of Benjamin Britten's opera) asserted that "neither
[Thomas Mann's] book nor the opera is about a paedophile".
Erica Jeal, reviewing the production this week, told us that
Deborah Warner, the director, "knows this is not an opera
about sexuality". Yet Anthony Holden, in the Observer,
suffered "uneasy feelings of voyeurism" and found
that Britten's opera, at least as Bostridge put it over, "smacks
uneasily, indeed creepily, of an apologia for paedophilia".
The problem is not confined to critics and
performers. Writing in the ENO programme, the German expert
Richard Stokes, noting Mann's frequent references to Greek authors,
tells us that the nature of the passion depicted in the story
"is, of course, an aged homosexual's infatuation with a
beautiful youth". But Holden in the Observer indignantly
refers to Gustav von Aschenbach as heterosexual. And he is right
that the famous writer in Mann's story has been happily, if
briefly, married. His wife has died, leaving him with a daughter
who has herself now married. Consequently he takes his holiday
in Venice alone.
Nothing that Mann says about Aschenbach would
lead us to suspect that he has any "previous", as
far as men or boys are concerned, unless it is this one sentence:
"Feelings he had had long ago, early and precious dolours
of the heart, which had died out in his life's austere service
and were now, so strangely transformed, returning to him - he
recognised them with a confused and astonished smile."
But if these feelings are "strangely transformed",
then we can hardly be certain that they were homosexual.
Nothing to do with Death in Venice is entirely
simple. I spent some time the other evening trying to work out
why Aschenbach refers to Tadzio, the 14-year-old boy with whom
he falls in love, as "Phaeax" when he is late down
to breakfast at the hotel. Then I realised I was being misled
by Helen Lowe-Porter's translation. "Phaeax" (which
is indeed a name in Greek) should be "Phaeacian".
The boy is conceived as a pleasure-lover, who likes staying
in bed, as (Mann thought) the Phaeacians did in the Odyssey,
which he goes on to quote (and which Lowe-Porter leaves in German,
not realising the source of the line).
So we should all throw away our old translations
and rely instead on David Luke's 1990 version. Excepting that,
if we want to know how Britten understood Mann's story, we have
to look at Lowe-Porter, which is the version he relied on. Either
way, it is possible to see that what happens to Aschenbach -
his infatuation with a beautiful child, leading to his humiliation
and death - happens because he is an artist, not because he
is a homosexual (he isn't, or wasn't at the outset). This fatal
passion is something that can afflict any artistic spirit.
The artist is devoted to the pursuit of beauty.
And here is what Britten read in Lowe-Porter: "For in almost
every artist nature is inborn a wanton and treacherous proneness
to side with the beauty that breaks hearts, to single our aristocratic
pretensions and pay them homage." And here is the same
passage as rendered by Luke: "Inborn in almost every artistic
nature is a luxuriant, tell-tale bias in favour of the injustice
that creates beauty, a tendency to sympathise with aristocratic
preference and pay it homage."
Worrying, isn't it? A "beauty that breaks
hearts" turns out to be, in Luke, "an injustice that
creates beauty". Either way, however, the artist is seen
as siding with beauty in a way that, elsewhere, is definitely
seen as immoral. The Greek gods come into this (Greek thought
is behind all this) because they are seen as grabbing young
beauty whenever it moves them. Zeus grabs Ganymede (among the
cases Mann alludes to in the story), while the goddess Eos (Dawn),
the "ravisher of youth", grabs Cleitus and Cephalus
and Orion. In this respect, the gods are like Oberon and Titania
arguing over the Indian child in A Midsummer Night's Dream
Mann knew exactly what he was talking about
- the dirty secret in the artist's soul, in despite of which
great art is created: "it is despite grief and anguish,
despite poverty, loneliness, bodily weakness, vice and passion
and a thousand inhibitions, that they have come into being at
all." Aschenbach comes to feel sympathy with the cholera
outbreak, "an obscure sense of satisfaction at what was
going on in the dirty alleyways of Venice, cloaked in official
secrecy - this guilty secret of the city which merged with his
own innermost secret and which it was also so much in his interests
Britten, who had great taste in literature,
had a perverse taste in librettists: he liked them bad, but
amenable. That's what he got in Myfanwy Piper, and he pays the
price for it as usual. Between the two of them, they cooked
up a drama in which the lover is a singer but the illicit loved
one is a dancer, and therefore on some kind of different plane
of reality. In Mann's story, Tadzio is flesh and blood and truly
there, and becomes aware of the obsession he has aroused, and
is interested in it, and encourages it, and protects it with
secrecy. He is, after all, on the brink of adolescence.
The situation is very dangerous indeed, and
utterly humiliating for Aschenbach as he realises that the adults
are becoming aware of him as, precisely, a paedophile (although
Mann doesn't use that word): "Although his pride writhed
in torments it had never known under the appalling insult that
this implied, he could not in conscience deny its justice."
In Mann, when we come to a Dionysiac dream, it is orgiastic
and obscene. In Britten-Piper it is a ridiculous, cerebral dialogue.
(Dionysus: "Do not turn away from life!" Apollo: "No!
Abjure the knowledge that forgives.") It is meaningless
and prim. It drains away the danger.
And it was written 60 years after Mann's original