To have an understanding of the use of disease as a metaphor in Thomas Mann's novella Death In Venice, it is useful to understand the concept of disease itself. According to Webster's Dictionary, 1913 edition, disease is defined as the "lack of ease; uneasiness; trouble; vexation; disquiet." These words do embody the struggles of the great author, and main character of the novella, Gustav Aschenbach, but it is the description of disease as "an alteration in the state of the body or of some of its organs, interrupting or disturbing the performance of the vital functions, and causing or threatening pain and weakness; malady; affection; illness; sickness; disorder; -- applied figuratively to the mind, to the moral character and habits, to institutions, the state, etc" that is the foundation of the metaphor used by Mann. The disease spreading through Venice, is presumed to be cholera, and to what Aschenbach surrenders to in Venice. However, upon careful examination of the words written so eloquently, one can find that the death of Aschenbach was more that of an artist afflicted with passion and lust for beauty than of any physical ailment.
Mann carefully combines philosophy and psychology in Death in Venice, and these two general areas of intellect are in conflict throughout the novella. Specifically, it is the philosophy of art, one's quest for beauty, and the psychological theory of repression derived from Freud that present themselves as key concerns in the metaphor of disease. Aschenbach, in his question for beauty, and in his repressed upbringing as an outcast of sorts from his great forefathers lead to the internal conflict he personifies. "His forebears had been officers, judges, bureaucrats, men who had led their disciplined, respectable, and frugal lives in the services of king and state. Deeper intellectuality had embodied itself among them on one occasion, in the person of a preacher; more swiftly flowing and sensual blood had entered the family in the previous generation through the writer's mother, daughter of a Bohemian orchestra conductor. It was from her that he derived the signs of foreign ancestry in his appearance. The marriage of a sober official conscientiousness with darker, more ardent impulses produced an artist, this particular artist."
These words allow us to see into the character of Aschenbach. The artist, coming from a tradition of great men in their own rights, chose a different path for his life. However, we cannot leave our past behind, and no doubt, he was brought up in a formal fashion, taught through his role models to hide emotions and to repress his desires, those characteristics one often thinks of when under the impression of an artist. When dis-ease occurs within an individual, conflict occurs, and the physical being becomes deteriorated.
Understanding the past experiences of some can help us in our quest to understand whom they are and why they choose to behave in the manner in which we are accustomed. At the beginning of his journey, we see Gustav as a figure of esteem and prestige. However, upon his arrival in Venice, Mann allows the reader a glimpse into his journey, the progression of an infection into complete abandonment of rationale. It is also from the very beginning of the novella that a parallel emerges between the physical disease, the plague upon Venice, and the distress with in the main character himself. In particular, we see this rejection of the astute artist and the acceptance of the passive, receptive man of desire when he encounters a gondolier who does not lead him to his desired location, but rather has taken the notion to take him to his actual destination directly. "
the traveler saw no way to enforce his orders. Anyway, how comfortably he could rest if he didn't get excited! Had he not wished for the ride to last a long time forever? It was wisest to let things take their course and, most of all, it was extremely pleasant
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