The Death in Venice’s tragic tone–and much of its fascination–comes down to this dramatization of a lack of self-knowledge. Aschenbach’s first sung utterance–“my mind beats on”–reveals the writer in all the quiet, monosyllabic desperation of a creative blockage: “no words come” (Mann 105). Everything about the scene suggests that his problems are indeed of the mind, though perhaps not in a way he recognizes, for they are problems of instinct, understood here as the very opposite of an external stimulus.
Instinct, in the sense defined by Freud, reveals itself “as a constant force” acting from within (rather than “a momentary impact” from without) against which “no flight can avail. ” In this case, we at once confront the twentieth-century subject in its most recognizable form, as a body beyond the reach of the Cartesian rational subject, a materiality drastically severed from the psychic agency of consciousness. Aschenbach’s mind beats on in authentically Freudian rhythms, for it is controlled at this point by sexual drives of which he is unaware.
The natural inclination of Flaubertian desire is toward dangerous fusions; in other terms, desire leads to the nightmare of a loss of form. There are, it’s true, fusions as well as a kind of material and spiritual oozing which indicate ecstasy rather than panic: the “vague and prolonged cry” which Emma hears after she and Rodolphe have made love in the forest blends harmoniously “like a piece of music with the last vibrations of her throbbing nerves,” and a few moments earlier “something sweet seemed to emanate from the trees” (Flaubert 205).
But the hallucinated sense of substances breaking out of their forms is also a sign of terror in Flaubert. The Flaubertian cult of art explains Flaubert’s severity toward inferior art. The realistic claims of Emma’s favorite novels depend on their ignoring their own mediating processes, on their attempt to hide the differences between the nature of the intensities they seem to exalt and that of the exalting narrative itself.
They encourage Emma to search in life for the abstractions invented in books, and they also invite her to expect that real time, like the printed time of a novel, can be an uninterrupted succession of intense passages. Emma contributes to the sins of literary romance and, in a way, skillfully dismisses art by trying to separate the romance from the literature and thereby ignoring the work—the effort and the product—of the writer.
Like in Flaubert’s Emma in Aschenbach’s detachment from everyday reality, and in his ultimately fatal pursuit of perfect beauty, we may recognize the figure of the creative artist, and of the passionate lover, caught here by the depredations of a purely sensual gratification, humiliated by an uncontrollable infatuation, and finally destroyed by the workings of a numinous agency, by “fate. ” The two figures–artist and lover–are twin subjects within the intricate counterpoint of Mann’s and Flaubert’s tales, the thread running from Aschenbach’s aroused state in Munich to his plague-ridden collapse on the Lido beach.
The story probes desires that are overtly sexual–where the Screw, for instance, was covert– yet it would be a mistake to regard its artistic-philosophical questions as somehow peripheral. Mann’s interweaving of aesthetic and erotic discourses, in Death in Venice, embodies a recognition that the erotic in Aschenbach’s quest is precisely, in Eve Sedgwick’s words, “the most physically rooted and the most symbolically infused” side of his being.
Returning to Mann’s idea of “psychic reality,” it is in Aschenbach’s perception, in the sensory workings of his consciousness, that the intersection of erotic and aesthetic desires is most immediately apparent. Mann’s tale is rich in the minute workings of perception, yet their operations are complicated, subverted even, in its later stages, by the literary force of a narrator’s voice, ever more distinct from Aschenbach’s own thoughts. Flaubert’s book we are reading constantly draws our attention to its own nature as a composed written document.
Flaubert speaks in his correspondence of moments when he himself is, as it were, so taken in by the realism of his own writing that he begins to experience the incidents he describes: he shares both Emma’s and Rodolphe’s sensations in the scene of their love-making in the forest, and he writes the section on Emma’s death with the taste of arsenic in his mouth. Occasionally Flaubert thus tends to draw from his own writing something like the immediate “personal profit” which Emma demands from literature.
But to spend a couple of weeks shaping a single paragraph hardly seems calculated to leave the writer capable of “seeing through” his writing to the experiences it describes. The painfully slow composition of Madame Bovary is much more likely to leave Flaubert with the taste of verbal agonies rather than with the taste of arsenic. More importantly, Flaubert’s language, unlike Thomas Mann’s, calls attention to its own strategies, sounds and designs.