Relationship between Art and Life Explored in Death in Venice
The novella Death in Venice by Thomas Mann examines the nature of the relationship between art and life. The progression of the main character, Gustave Von Aschenbach, illustrates the concept of an Apollinian/Dionysian continuum. Apollo is the Greek god of art, thus something Apollinian places an emphasis on form. Dionysus is the Greek god of wine and chaos, hence something Dionysian emphasizes energy and emotion. In The Birth of Tragedy Friedrich Nietzsche suggests that,"... the continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollinian and Dionysian duality--just as procreation depends on the duality of the sexes, involving perpetual strife with only periodically intervening reconciliations.. in the Greek world there existed a tremendous opposition, in origin and aims, between the Apollinian area of sculpture, and the nonimagistic, Dionysian art of music "(33). The Greeks embodied this concept in the "clear figures of their gods" just as Thomas Mann, a great reader of Nietzsche, embodied it in his characters (33).
At the beginning of the novel, Gustave is depicted as an extremely, if not overly, civilized man. He is an artist, but he approaches art coldly and rigidly. It is more a job than a joy for him, and it is actually his urge to seek "flight from his rigid, cold, and passionate service" that brings him to Venice (Mann 6). Although Gustave loves this service, he is currently in a state of frustration: "To him it seemed that his work had ceased to be marked by that fiery play of fancy that is the product of joy..." (7). His beliefs can be summarized in the words "mind and art," thus missing the crucial ingredients of life and sensuality. Gustave's life is not in balance, his continuum is dangerously leaning towards exclusively Apollinian qualities. It is at risk of being toppled, leaving Gustave's carefully calculated, painfully civilized life in ruins. This event comes to pass during the time he spends in the city of Venice.
In the course of Gustave's first day in Venice he notices Tadzio, a beautiful prepubescent boy. Tadzio is introduced into the story as a type of wild child with disgust for the very society in which Gustave has embedded himself This disgust for society, and also a type of exemption from its constraints, is evidenced in Tadzio's appearance and actions. While his sisters are dressed with "an almost disfiguring austerity...there [is] no trace of the same pedagogic severity in the case of [Tadzio]...No scissors had been put to [his] lovely hair..." (25).
When faced with a high class Russian family, which symbolizes the restraining customs of society, "[Tadzio's] brow [darkens],... his frown [is] so heavy that the eyes [seem] to sink in as they [utter] beneath the black and vicious language of hate" (31-32). Tadzio's freedom and capacity for such intense emotion allow him to represent Dionysus, and thus make him capable...