From the Sublime to the Subliminal: The Decline and Fall of Gustav von Aschenbach in ‘Der Tod in Venedig’

The theme of a planned Dallas Conference organised by Richard Stone for the centenary of the publication of ‘Der Tod in Venedig’ was to be the influence of Freud’s theories on this novella. It could be argued that it does matter whether Freud influenced Mann or not because Thomas Mann had enough insight into human nature without the aid of any psychologist no matter how brilliant he or she may be. This could be one reason why broken promises from would-be contributors led to the cancellation of the conference. Another reason could be that so much has been written about Thomas Mann that it is difficult to write anything new even after ploughing through masses of secondary literature. I could sympathise with academics who gave up the ghost for this project. However, when I came across Wilhelm Jensen’s novella ‘Gradiva: ein pompejanisches Phantasiestück’ (first published in 1903) I discovered that a very interesting theme emerged. This novella has so many parallels with ‘Der Tod in Venedig’ that it is highly unlikely that Thomas Mann was not influenced by this novella. In addition, Wilhelm Jensen had attended the same grammar school as Thomas Mann and also, Sigmund Freud had written a psychological paper on this novella. Fascinating though this novella may be, it does not remotely compare with the high literary quality of Mann’s work. For teachers whether at school or university, ‘Gradiva’ would be an excellent starting point for a literary class as the novella is very readable and strays into the world of fantasy, which is a very popular sphere for modern young readers. The teacher would then have the challenging, but essential task of highlighting the difference between interesting literature and great literature. Even though this approach goes completely against current post- modernist and post-deconstruction literary theories, close analysis of passages between the two works should be able to convince students of the value of great literature.

How far Thomas Mann’s ‘Der Tod in Venedig’ was directly influenced by Freud remains controversial. One cause of the controversy concerns different interpretations based on a statement from an interview with Thomas Mann given in the magazine ‘La Stampa’ in 1925, which is quoted in full in Dierks (1990)[…]

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