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Deaths in Venice

Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach

Philip Kitcher
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  • Book Info
    Deaths in Venice
    Book Description:

    Published in 1913, Thomas Mann'sDeath in Venice is one of the most widely read novellas in any language. In the 1970s, Benjamin Britten adapted it into an opera, and Lucchino Visconti turned it into a successful film. Reading these works from a philosophical perspective, Philip Kitcher connects the predicament of the novella's central character to Western thought's most compelling questions.

    In Mann's story, the author Gustav von Aschenbach becomes captivated by an adolescent boy, first seen on the lido in Venice, the eventual site of Aschenbach's own death. Mann works through central concerns about how to live, explored with equal intensity by his German predecessors, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Kitcher considers how Mann's, Britten's, and Visconti's treatments illuminate the tension between social and ethical values and an artist's sensitivity to beauty. Each work asks whether a life devoted to self-sacrifice in the pursuit of lasting achievements can be sustained and whether the breakdown of discipline undercuts its worth. Haunted by the prospect of his death, Aschenbach also helps us reflect on whether it is possible to achieve anything in full awareness of our finitude and in knowing our successes are always incomplete.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53603-5
    Subjects: Philosophy, Music, Language & Literature, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xviii)
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  7. ONE Discipline
    (pp. 1-60)

    It is a very simple story. A writer of some note has encountered, at least temporarily, obstacles in his current projects. Deciding that he needs release from the pressures of his daily routine, he journeys to Venice. There, on the lido, he becomes fascinated by the beauty of an adolescent boy. Returning to his home in Munich, he is inspired to write a novella about the experience, a work that gains an enthusiastic reception and is retrospectively viewed as an advance in his literary development.

    That story describes events in Thomas Mann’s life in 1911–1912 and beyond. After the...

  8. TWO Beauty
    (pp. 61-124)

    Early in Ibsen’sPillars of the Community, the schoolmaster Rorlund borrows a famous New Testament phrase to characterize the large towns of the modern era: they present a beautiful exterior, but it only serves to conceal the rottenness within—they and their most respectable citizens are “whited sepulchres” full of “uncleanness.”¹ Even if the suggestions of the previous chapter might permit the judgment that Aschenbach’sartlends worth to his life, important questions about his social persona are left unanswered. For Aschenbach is not only the celebrant and defender of bourgeois values but one who has claimed to embody those...

  9. THREE Shadows
    (pp. 125-192)

    In the spring of 1912, Thomas Mann wrote to congratulate his brother Heinrich on the completion of a play, adding: “I would be glad to report something similar about my novella, but I cannot find the ending.”¹ What exactly was the difficulty? Could Mann have been uncertain about whether Aschenbach should live? Was he torn between cleaving more closely to the actual events of his own visit to Venice and the version in which his protagonist dies there? Almost certainly not. The premonitions of death, the shadows that fall across Aschenbach, are already marked in the earliest pages of the...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 193-246)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 247-258)