March 6, 2011

Unreality and prefiguration of death (in Venice)

I've finally completed a paper that collects various ideas from my online journal over at; together they make up an interpretation of Thomas Mann's novella Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice) which has various connections to the discussion of unreality here. In fact, the origin of several ideas I have outlined on this blog lies in my reading of Death in Venice, along with Kafka's Trial one of my preoccupations over the past couple of years.

The full text of the article can be found on my Papers page; here's the abstract for your convenience:
Thomas Mann’s “Der Tod in Venedig” ends with Aschenbach’s, the protagonist’s, death; but that death isn’t simply the conclusion of the story, it rather is its central topic: it gives the work its title, it is what all the plot lines have as their vanishing point, and above all, it’s alluded to and symbolized by characters and events all the time. These prefigurations in the story are the focus of this essay.

In addition to structural allusions to later passages in earlier ones and characters whose description suggests reading them as death personalized, there are more aspects to the prefiguration technique. Most importantly, they connect several tendencies in the story which all contribute to Aschenbach’s fate: mental and physical fatigue, an increasing inability to withstand temptations and weaknesses, and a feeling of drifting towards unreality. By prominently employing prefiguration to bring out all these tendencies, Mann not only achieves a high coherence between earlier and later parts of the story, but also highlights the interconnectedness of these tendencies.

Aschenbach’s development (or decline) over the course of the story reflects a growing willingness, albeit one which always had been rooted in his personality, to accept and even actively engage in deception along with other (including more artistic) deviations from reality: in the service of beauty, that shimmer of unreality.

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