According to Manfred Dierks (1972), Mann took the idea for his novella from Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy” – it is the idea of fatal Apollonian unilaterality. Isadore Traschen, in 1965, also mentioned that Mann parodied Nietzsche’s ideas: “Aschenbach’s dream is not a metaphor for Apollonian art, his demise does not suggest that Dionysus saves, and homosexuality is not the kind of “fraternal union” that Nietzsche thought Apollonian and Dionysian forces should have” (Shookman, 2003). In the paper, we will try to analyze the relationships between Aschenbach and Tadzio, demonstrating that the Apollonian and Dionysian forces are both destructive.
As far as Nietzsche’s doctrine goes, there are the two Greek gods of art: Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo’s artistic world is the world of dream, whereas the Dionysian world is that one of intoxication. A dream reveals the divine essence of perfection: “According to the idea of Lucretius, the marvelous divine shapes first stepped out before the mind of man in a dream. We enjoy the form with an immediate understanding; every shape speaks to us; nothing is indifferent and unnecessary” (records.viu.ca.). Apollo is the god of light and “also rules over the beautiful appearance of the inner fantasy world.” “His eye must be “sun-like,” in keeping with his origin; even when he is angry and gazes with displeasure, the consecration of the beautiful illusion rests on him”
Such a description resembles Tadzio’s image very much - the young boy is also presented as pure perfection of physical forms and inner qualities. Aschenbach perceives the boy’s “marvelous divine shapes” immediately; he mentions every detail of the boy’s stature so that nothing goes unnoticed:
Soon the onlooker knew every curve and pose of that sophisticated body that so freely exhibited itself, greeted again joyfully every already familiar pretty feature, and could %uFB01nd no end to his admiration and tender sensual pleasure. The boy […] came running thither, perhaps still dripping from the water, shook his curls, and, while extending his hand, standing on one leg while the other foot was on its toes, he had an appealing circular stance of the body, comely in a tense way, bashful because of his kindliness, eager to please out of aristocratic duty. He stood at the shore, solitary and away from his people, very close to Aschenbach - erect, hands tied in his nape, slowly rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, and dreamed into the blue, while small waves were washing over his toes. His honey-colored locks caressed his temples and the nape, the Sun illuminated the %uFB02u%uFB00 of his upper spine, the %uFB01nely drawn rips, the symmetry of the breasts was accentuated by his tight-%uFB01tting bathing suit, his arm pits were still bare as in a statue, the hollows of his knees were shining, and their blue maze of veins made the entire body seem to be fashioned from some translucent substance. What discipline, what precision of thought found their expression in this elongated and youthfully perfect form!
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Judging from this citation, one may see that the artist admires the young boy in quite a perverted form: such expressions as “sophisticated body,” “tender sensual pleasure,” “appealing circular stance of the body;” the description of knees, arm pits, and even veins render a scrutinized gaze of the man striving for long-awaited diversity of feelings and sensual pleasures. The ambiguity of Aschenbach’s soul, thus, the Apollonian and Dionysian elements are inherent due to his heredity; his father represents sedulous Apollo and his mother embodies passionate Dionysus: “That marriage between businesslike, spartan sedulity and darker, more %uFB01ery impulses had created an artist, and this artist in particular” (scribd.com.). Consequently, there is no wonder that, finally, the fifty-year-old man, who has controlled his Dionysian bursts for a long period of time, is intoxicated with the corrupt passion and worships the godlike beauty:
Example and mirror! His eyes embraced that noble %uFB01gure at the bounds of the blue, and in enthusiastic rapture he believed to embrace beauty itself, form as a thought in the mind of God, the one and pure perfection living in the human spirit and of which a human image and analog was erected here for worship. That was intoxication; and without hesitation, even eagerly, the artist welcomed it. His mind was %uFB02ying, his learning surged up, his memory revived ancient notions from his youth that he had been taught but never thought about himself. Was it not written that the Sun shifted our attention from the intellectual to the corporeal? It confused and enchanted, it was said, the mind and the memory, so that the soul forgot its own disposition out of sheer joy and with stunned admiration attached itself to the most appealing of the lit objects: that it was then only able to reach higher spheres while beholding a body. Eros mimicked mathematicians who showed dull children concrete models of abstract shapes: That way also the god liked to use the form and color of human youth to make the conceptual visible, decorating it with all the re%uFB02ections of beauty whose sight made us burn with pain and hope.
This excerpt proves that the artist is really intoxicated with beauty and forgets about himself, and intoxication has to do with Dionysus: “Either through the influence of narcotic drink, of which all primitive men and peoples speak in their hymns, or through the powerful coming on of spring, which drives joyfully through all of nature, that Dionysian excitement arises; as it intensifies, the subjective fades into complete forgetfulness of self” (records.viu.ca.). Observing corporal beauty, Aschenbach convinces himself of the fact that God has laid great emphasis on the outer outlook; for Dionysus, intellectual/spiritual elements are not of high value; primary, dark instincts dominate over the Superego, and the body longs for gratification only. Moreover, satisfaction rejects any moral restrictions and conventions; people rejoice together with nature: “Under the magic of the Dionysian, not only does the bond between man and man lock itself in place once more, but also nature itself, no matter how alienated, hostile, or subjugated, rejoices again in her festival of reconciliation with her prodigal son, man”.
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Although Aschenbach’s attitude to Tadzio may be characterized as homosexual, let us focus on another aspect. The old man is an artist; and the artist is supposed to find, admire, and portray beauty. In this case, beauty causes inspiration and serves as sufficient impetus to creativity. Mann’s novella proves this assertion as Aschenbach suddenly wants to write in the boy’s presence:
The happiness of writers is the thought that can be entirely emotion and the emotion that can be entirely thought. Such a pulsing thought, such a precise emotion belonged to the solitary one then: namely that nature was shaken with delight when the mind paid homage to beauty. Suddenly he wanted to write. Eros loves idleness and is made for it, but in this stage of his condition the mind of the a%uFB04icted was set on production, the immediate cause was almost irrelevant. A question, an inspiration to make his position known about an important problem of culture and good taste had reached the traveler from the intellectual sphere. The subject was a familiar experience to him; his desire to see it take the glorious shape of words was unexpectedly irresistible. He wanted to work in the presence of Tadzio, to take the proportions of the boy as a template, to let his style %uFB02ow like the curves of his body that seemed divine to him, to carry his beauty into the intellectual like the herder Ganymede had been lifted to the skies by the eagle-like Zeus.
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The italicized excerpt presents an exaggerated praise of the artist seduced by the corrupt passion. Such an exaggeration makes his pompous and, thus, untrustworthy and meaningless philosophizing ridiculous. Probably, at first, Aschenbach believes that his interest to Tadzio is purely artistic; that the boy simply inspires him to create new masterpieces. Nevertheless, the old man is ashamed of his passion, which presupposes that, at the core of his heart, he realizes that his interest is still immoral. To justify his immoral corrupt feelings, Aschenbach refers to Plato’s doctrine in “Phaedrus”, thus, using Socrates’ words to his own advantage. Let us consider the following citation and find out how Aschenbach and Tadzio are compared with Plato and Phaedrus:
[…]On the soft-sloping grass two %uFB01gures were reclining, protected from the heat of the day: an older and a younger one, one ugly and one winsome, the sage with the amiable. And with pleasantries and wittily wooing jests Socrates taught Phaedo about longing and virtue. He talked to him about the searing fright which is su%uFB00ered by the one who beholds something that mirrors eternal beauty; talked to him about the cravings of the godless and evil one who cannot see the beauty behind its image and who is unable of reverence; talked about the holy terror that strikes the noble upon apparition of a perfect body before him, how he is shocked and does not dare to look at it, and how he would worship the one who is beautiful like a god if that did not make him look silly in the eyes of the others. Because only beauty, he added, is lovely and visible at the same time: it is, nota bene, the only way in which we can receive and bear the intellect. Or what would become of us when the divine in general, reason, virtue, and truth would be available like this to our senses? Would we not burn and die from love, like Semele before Zeus? Thus beauty is the way of the feeling one to reach the mind - only a way, a means, my little Phaedo... And then he landed his %uFB01nest blow, the seasoned charmer: That the lover would be more divine than the beloved because God was in the former but not in the latter – perhaps the most tender and jocular notion ever conceived and the source of all waggishness and hidden wantonness of desire.
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Let us notice how Socrates is described: he is old, ugly, but wise “seasoned charmer”; “pleasantries and wittily wooing jests” characterize him as a sly, self-assured, and superior mentor, who takes advantage of the naïve disciple. Phaedrus, as well as Tadzio, is “younger,” “winsome,” and “amiable.” Socrates tells Phaedrus that it is absolutely normal and incorrupt to admire and worship beautiful body as the mirror of eternal beauty. Strikingly enough, in the philosopher’s dialogue beauty evokes the “searing fright,” “the holy terror,” and shock; although, generally, beauty is not believed to cause such feelings. These pompous phrases only underline the vanity of such ideas and reflect nothing more than egoistic philosophizing and idle boast of the superior in front of the inferior. What is more, the philosopher asserts that one receives and bears the intellect through beauty only. To my mind, this judgment is likely to be rather superficial since the outer form does not always reveal the inner essence.
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Nonetheless, it seems that Socrates takes into consideration the public opinion: he claims that he is ready to worship a godlike beautiful person only if the others would not consider him silly. Consequently, he is ashamed of his love in front of the others. The same can be said about Aschebach: he is also ashamed to show his feelings to Tadzio and fails to approach him and talk to him. Furthermore, the philosopher admits that desire is inherently wanton, and the reason for it is natural, too, as the lover is “more divine than the beloved because God was in the former but not in the latter.” Aschenbach uses these Plato’s ideas to legitimize his feelings; but, in the dialogue, there are obvious signals (“wittily wooing jests”, “pleasantries;” Socrates is represented as “the seasoned charmer”) for superficiality of derisive philosophizing. Socrates’ image is rather negative, too, which makes us think that Aschenbach’s intentions are vicious and perverted.
The culmination of the story about Ascenbach and Tadzio’s relationships occurs when the boy unexpectedly smiles to the man with the smile of Narcissus. This mythical allusion once more underpins the idea of unfortunate love: Narcissus sorely rejected the nymph Echo who fell in love with him, and she died from sorrow; her voice was the only thing left behind (sparknotes.com.). The same fate awaits Aschenbach: he dies because of his love for the boy, leaving his literary works like Echo has left her voice. This twist of the plot distinctly rejects Plato’s idea about the benefit of the lover – in the case with Aschenbach, the lover’s fate is more sorrowful than that of the beloved:
He had not recognized the dear %uFB01gure, it came unexpectedly, so he did not have time to take on an expression of calm and dignity. Joy, surprise, admiration could be read in it when his gaze met that of the missing one – and in that second it happened that Tadzio smiled: smiled at him, familiarly, lovely, and openly, with lips that only slowly parted during the smile. It was the smile of Narcissus who bends above the re%uFB02ecting water, that deep, enchanting, protracted smile, with which he extends his arms towards the mirror image of his own beauty – a slightly distorted smile, distorted from the hopelessness of his longing to kiss the pretty lips of his shadow, %uFB02irtatious, curious and somewhat tormented, infatuating and infatuated. The addressee of that smile ran away with it as if with a calamitous gift. He was so moved that he was forced to %uFB02ee the light of the terrace and the front garden and briskly made for the park on the rear side. Oddly indignant and a%uFB00ectionate admonitions escaped him: “You must never smile like that! Listen, you must never smile like that at anyone!” He threw himself onto a bench, frantically inhaling the nightly fragrance of the %uFB02ora. And leaning back, with hanging arms, overcome and shivering, he whispered the formula of yearning -impossible here, absurd, depraved, ludicrous, and yet sacred and venerable even in this case: “I love you!”
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This quotation clearly demonstrates the effect of beauty on the artist: he is both physically and mentally shocked. He can’t stay calm and his dignity dissipates in front of the godlike beauty. The smile of the beloved makes him fall in love with Tadzio. Saying “You must never smile that!” Aschenbach wants to privatize the boy’s smile as if he was jealous of other people looking at the smiling boy; these words sound like a warning to himself and everybody who gives up to temptation. The old man is likely to realize that such a love is corrupt (as the last lines prove) but cannot withstand the vicious feeling.
All things considered, both Ascehnbach’s and Tadzio’s images stand for Dionysian and Apollonian forces, respectively. Aschenbach is the artist, and his soul strives for beauty in every its embodiment. Being intoxicated with boy’s godlike beauty, the old man blindly worships the boy’s body and appearance, at the same time overestimating the inner qualities of the latter. The young Apollo, Tadzio, is aware of the old man’s feelings and shows interest to him, too. However, as the novella proves, Dionysian and Apollonian elements cannot coexist: vice and purity are mutually exclusive and destructive.
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