A few days ago I found myself once again reading Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” which to me is much more than the story of an old pedophile. The story, it seems to me, is about the purpose and function of art–or, if you will, the demands art makes on the artist. For all I know I am out to sea here. Still, Mann says, that “art is, after all a more sublime life. It delights more deeply, it consumes more swiftly. It carves the traces of imaginary adventures into the features of a servant, and despite the monastic stillness of his outward life, it eventually brings about a fussiness and overrefinement, a weary and nervous curiosity such as scarcely evolve from a lifetime of dissolute passions and pleasures.” One senses here that this “fussiness and overrefinement” is a deleterious side effect of the artistic life, or so Mann seems to think.
Actually, however, as interesting as I found the above quotation, I was much taken by something else Mann says about Aschenbach a little later in the story. The first time Aschenbach sees the Polish boy, Tadzio, dressed in a British sailor suit, in the hotel dining room, he is almost literally transfixed by the boy’s beauty and loveliness. He looks, the boy does, like those “Greek statues of the noblest era,” and the older man feels “he had never encountered such perfection in nature or the arts.”
Well, all this is well and good, even understandable, but what of this: “Innate in nearly every artistic nature is a luscious and treacherous penchant for acknowledging the injustice that creates beauty and for sympathizing with and paying homage to aristocratic privilege.”
The first part of the just quoted above is, most probably indisputable, indefeasible: there seems to be no justice when it comes to the creation of beauty. There doesn’t seem to be justice in anything at all outside the purview of men, beauty least of all. It’s the second half of the quoted sentence above that I am confused about–though I can readily see that such a comment would be apposite for Aschenbach, and, perhaps, for Mann, who’d have none of the vulgar Nazis.
As an American, I am not sure I understand the trappings of aristocracy. I believe only, I quickly conclude, in the aristocracy of talent, but I confess that I admire ritual and a certain order. I don’t object–not that it matters–to the Royal family in England, though cut me to my marrow bone and you’ll find a stubby-fingered hater of despotism and privilige, as fervent a republican as ever threw tea into the dark harbor waters. In short, I am not sure what Mann means by aristocracy. My ignorance here proves only, perhaps, that I am descended from peasants, not one tall, thin, blue-eyed aristocrat in my lineage.
When I look out the southeastern window, the blind up to admit the sunlight, of my study, I have view of the huge magnolia tree. On this massive tree is one white blossom, just one; I got up and looked and saw not another flower upon the tree. The flower has unfolded its lower petals, which seem to support the inner three, which look, to me, like alabaster sea shells, concave, as if sails drinking the wind. I think of Stevens’s jar on the hill in Tennessee in his famous poem. That single flower, not much bigger than both my hands held together and spread out, dominates the tree. It is, I think, utterly useless and superfluous blooming there, and yet how beautiful, and now, having unfolded itself, it conspires in its own despoliation and ruin.