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Death In Venice: Timeless Psychoanalysis Through Greek Allusions

1787 words - 7 pages

With the advent of film and the ability to produce visual representation of fictional (or non-fictional) characters, situations, and settings, one of the natural courses has been to adapt literary works to the new medium. Throughout time we have seen this occur endlessly, with subjectively varying results. Literature has been adapted to forms such as staged plays, live readings, as well as other visual forms, such as painting, sculpture, or photography, and in each adaption to a new medium, aspects of the tangible essence of the fiction are translated to fit its new form of expression. In Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, the struggle of the novels protagonist Gustave Aschenbach reaches back to Greek Mythology via contemplations of emotion versus reason. In the novel, this is done using internal dialogues to vividly express the conflict that resides in humanity between instinctual and conditioned thought regarding beauty in the world, in Aschenbach’s own internal debates. However, in the translation to film, many of the internal dialogues must be represented visually, with different forms of symbolism that, while easily conveyed in text, are more difficult to embody in such an external and demonstrative medium. In this paper, I look to explore the references Thomas Mann made to Greek Mythology and their meanings, and how both are interpreted and in some cases changed in the translation to film.
To begin, we first must start with one of the concepts that often frame Death in Venice, the conflict between reason and emotion expressed in terms of two Greek gods, Apollo and Dionysus. In the novel, these gods are referenced symbolically throughout via the use of first person description, through subtle leads alluding to the mythology of these two entities. In the initial chapter, when Aschenbach notices the man who inspires his trip to Venice, much of the description centers around the exotic and/or unusual things, such as the Byzantine styling of the mortuary chapel or the “Greek crosses…hieratic motifs” (Mann 24) of the façade. At first, these just seem like exoticisms, placed to frame the man, as well as Mann/Aschenbach’s emotive swing. The fact that Aschenbach, who we learn in the second chapter has led a life of responsibility and a drive to achieve and avoid idleness (29) is suddenly swayed by the exoticism surrounding this man, and particularly the influence of the east, as “the version of the myth that Mann mainly adheres to, Dionysus came to Greece from India” (“The origin of Dionysus”).
In the film, we do not have this same scene, as a visual translation of this would be extremely difficult to convey, given it is mostly a dialogue within Aschenbach. The change in his attitude towards traveling, from that of “nothing more than a necessary health precaution” (26) to “not span the bow too far and willfully stifle a desire that had erupted with him with such vivid force” (27), displays the first step towards impulsive and emotional Dionysian...

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