Death in Venice: How the Arts Put Society at Risk
The arts enjoy a reputation for contributing positively to the construction and preservation of society. However, it is worth considering how some of the greatest thinkers and writers have questioned this traditional scheme. My paper will examine Thomas Mann's novella, "Death in Venice," in order to assess this text's critical engagement with aesthetic theory in both Plato and Nietzsche.
Mann's text is constructed as an interrogation of Plato's "Phaedrus," where Socrates famously argues that Beauty is the one Idea that, thanks to a metaphorical likeness to its sensuous representations, can actually be said to appear in the world. Aschenbach's vocation as a writer rests upon this concept, which goes hand in hand with the role of public intellectual whose "art" provides a mirror image for the "society" of its time. This mutually supportive relationship between art and society begins to waver, however, when Aschenbach leaves Germany to visit Venice, where the watery beauty of the city "reflects" (trans-national) elements of "corruption" that contaminate both art and society. Venice becomes the privileged locus for our interrogation of the duplicitous power of the arts: to form and consolidate social norms, and to sow the seeds of social dissolution and unimaginable change.
Keywords: Aesthetic Theory, Fiction, Venice, Thomas Mann, Plato, Nietzsche
Associate Professor of French, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures