Sunday, July 8, 2012

Death in Venice: A Schopenhauerian Interpretation

Music to accompany article: Symphony No. 5, Adagietto (Mahler)

Schopenhauer was one of Thomas Mann’s chief philosophical mentors and the novella Death in Venice could be regarded as a literary transmutation of his philosophy. In the cinematic adaptation, Luchino Visconti ingeniously combines the literature, breathtaking images of decaying Venice, the Schopenhauerian idea of death as a welcome release from life, and the most sublime music. The Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (which opens with the distinctly Beethovenian ‘four blows of fate’ motif) forms the thematic soundtrack to the film. It became an instant hit and acquired a life of its own. Upon hearing the music, the Hollywood moguls inquired: “Who is this Mahler? Can we sign him on?”

     Gustav Mahler was born in 1860, the year Schopenhauer died. Mann was visiting Venice in May of 1911 when the news of Mahler’s death reached him. The novella became a tribute to the composer he knew and admired. It was also a homage to the great philosopher whose masterpiece The World as Will and Representation he called a “symphony in four movements”.

                                                            Death as a Canonisation of Suffering

      Schopenhauer considered death to be a great inspiration: “Without death there would be hardly any philosophising! Hence, all religions and philosophical systems are principally an antidote to the certainty of death” (1844). In his Weltanschauung, he incorporated ideas of Buddhism and Brahmanism which regard the passage of time in a cyclical manner of rising and passing away, with no sharp beginning or end. Furthermore, he viewed death as an apotheosis of life and a welcome release from pain; a canonisation of suffering. From Schopenhauer’s point of view, life is a suffering from birth to death! Even bright and joyous moments cannot counterbalance this sad state of affairs. Just as Silenus advised: “the best thing is not to be born; the second best is to die as soon as one can”. While pain is a consequence of individuation, death could be a return to primal Oneness and a form of restitutio in integrum. The real source of a fear of death is the conflict between the willing (i.e. animalistic self-preservation) and knowing part of our nature (i.e. knowing that in death we only return to the oblivion from where we came). Redemption is a form of release from suffering and the need to exist; a liberation from life itself. It means the annihilation of the Will and the return to an all-embracing nonexistence.

                                                              The Ecstasy of the Aesthetic Moment

                                                                    He who ever gazed upon beauty,
                                                                    Has already succumbed to death.

                                                                                    August von Platen, Tristan, 1825

     The idea of Platonic ecstasy was already present in Schopenhauer’s early thought. The subject of aesthetic experience becomes a pure, will-less and timeless subject of knowledge in a world devoid of Kantian categorical framework. In a moment of ecstasy, one is released from the prison of being oneself; the subject imperceptibly merges with the object. This transformation of the subject from ordinary (category-bound) consciousness into the will-lessness of aesthetic contemplation leads to a state of “aesthetic delight”. T.S. Eliot’s phrase from Four Quartets “at the still point, there the dance is” expresses this ineffable sense of rapture. In the film Death in Venice, it is encapsulated in the image of von Aschenbach (played superbly by Dirk Bogart) leaning out of the window, with an unforgettable expression of ecstasy on his face as he gazes into the unfathomable essence of beauty. Indeed, the theme of the gaze – be it into one’s own soul, into beauty or into nothingness – is one of the important leitmotifs of the novella, and even more so of the film. The still waters of the Venetian lagoon resemble the menacing, deadening pool of Narcissus. In the closing scene of the film, von Aschenbach’s body sinks wearily into a deckchair and the quivering smile fades from his mask-like face. Like Narcissus, he dies alone, unloved and unmourned, gazing into an image of Tadzio (his Doppelgänger?) who is beckoning him into the bliss of nothingness. Even Schopenhauer would not have bettered this visual condensation of his thought: life is a painful charade and only death can offer a release.

The young boy, Tadzio, beckons von Aschenbach

                                                           Mahler’s Adagietto and the Wagner Connection

     Richard Wagner died in Venice in February of 1883, and we catch a glimpse of his bust from the Gardenico during the opening scene of the film. He discovered Schopenhauer at the age of 41 and became besotted with him. Having read The World as Will four times in rapid succession, he would speak of this “gift from heaven” to anyone who was prepared to listen. And it was in Venice that Wagner started to compose his thoroughly Schopenhauerian masterpiece Tristan und Isolde. At the time, he was briefly ‘on the run’ with Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of his benefactor, and pinching the wives of others was to become a recurring leitmotif in his erotic liaisons dangereuses.

     Tristan was one of Mahler’s most revered operas, and it is the Liebestod that forms a discrete canvas for the Adagietto. In this musical tapestry, he typically interweaves the celestial with a hint of the infernal. Alma Schindler, the most desired young woman in Vienna at the time, was the fortunate recipient of this wordless declaration of love and proposal of marriage. She, who also adored Tristan, instantly understood and accepted the offer. But there is a tragic twist to the tale. In the medieval legend of Tristan and Isolde, the maiden marries the wrong man, and the adulterous lovers unite in death. Could it be that Mahler unconsciously anticipated a tragic end to his and Alma’s marriage, and that she (Isolde) would betray him (Tristan) for another man (Gropius), only to discover after his death that it was Gustav she truly loved?

     We shall never know. But perhaps we could ponder upon the enigma of love, fate, death and the absurdity of existence when we next visit ‘the most beautiful city in the world’. The discerning ear might even capture the fading sounds of the Adagietto quivering in the stillness of the Grand Canal’s murky waters…