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    On unconditional commitment

  • 2.1.2012

    I have here what appears to be a fragment of a longer conversation; I found it at an unexpected place (and there might be more to follow, for I am still digging). Curiously, it must have been handed down to us through several stages: what I'm giving below is a translation into English from French; however, the French text itself is scattered with notes in the margins that list Latin terms (originals, presumably, for the French ones in the text). But then, it seems not plausible that this was Latin in the first place, with Socrates, Achilles, and Hector as its protagonists. If it was a Greek dialogue, though, it now is lost, and the author long forgotten: for the style and wording do match none that's known to us.

    Socrates, Achilles

    Achilles: What is it that we hear about our friend then, Socrates?
    Socrates: There's been some recent news indeed: it seems that he has been afflicted by that sickness which is sometimes called the 'wave of passions'.
    Achilles: Oh, that's a beautiful turn of phrase.
    Socrates: Yes, it is that. We must not let ourselves be guided just by the niceness of a formulation, though. Is it not so that beautifully speaking of a thing can make it look a good deal nicer than it actually is? Is not the elegance and lightness of a phrase at times deceptive? But there is still some way to go from something beautifully said to something that is beautiful itself. What do you think?
    Achilles: I'm not quite sure. You said that beautifully, too. How can one know then where the difference is between these cases?
    Socrates: You mean, where is the difference between, on the one hand, a poetic description of a state, where the description appears shiny but the state itself carries danger and puts the one who is in it at risk, and, on the other hand, a formulation of an insight that gives us the good feeling of a point well made, but where that feeling originates rather from the truth and beauty of that insight?
    Achilles: That is exactly what I mean, Socrates. You're making that distinction very sharply.
    Socrates: It is a good question, and a challenge. But let's not take it up here. For we have started exchanging news of our friend, and interesting as it may be to immerse ourselves in philosophy right away, our first concern should be those we care about, don't you agree?
    Achilles: I think you're right, though I admit I'm very curious about that other point. Perhaps we'll follow up on it?
    Socrates: Oh yes, I shall be more than willing later on, Achilles.
    Achilles: That's pleasant to hear. So what, then, is the form that the affliction takes in our friend? — The one that you described so drastically as a 'wave of passion'.
    Socrates: It seems that he has seen a woman who unites the charms of the ideal person his imagination has been ever dreaming of, and by a strange anomaly, the beloved image shows itself continuously associated with a musical idea — an idea in which he finds a certain quality of passion, but endowed with the nobility and shyness which he credits to the object of his love. And this melodic image (and its model) haunt him ceaselessly like a double idée fixe.
    Achilles: I recognize the feeling. It befits our friend's artistic soul to cast it into music just like that. But Socrates, do you not think he should control all those emotions a little better?
    Socrates: Well, I concur. And yet, that might be nigh impossible, at least for him ... and in this case: he's never let himself into a loss of his own self like this before. This time it's special.
    Achilles: How so?
    Socrates: Presumably it has to do with this perceived perfection.
    Achilles: The charms of an ideal person.
    Socrates: Right. And when you think about it, that's what romantic lovers see in those who, for whatever reason, they have fallen for. It justifies an unconditional affection.
    Achilles: I don't think I can relate to that. How can affection be unconditional? Is it not a give-and-take? And, more importantly, is not affection based on honor, excellence, and worth? They'd have to earn it, how can it not depend on some conditions?
    Socrates: Well spoken, Achilles. Just as I would have expected from an upright person as yourself. But let me ask you: if you're unwilling to give romantic love this unconditionality, why did you say you recognized the feeling?

    (This is where the fragment ends.)

  • 15.6.2011

    The steep path

    There was once a man who lived in a house just up the hill. Over the day, he was doing business in town, but in the evening he returned to his house; to get there, he had to climb the path up the hill, and that was a somewhat steep path.

    One day, our man had a great business opportunity — but to make the deal, it was important to keep a few little things secret from the customer. Minor details, of course. Just a few things that were not so important. Really no harm done, ... and a lot of money to earn! So the man was silent about these details, and he made the deal. Then he went home. When he walked up the path to his house, it seemed to him a little that the path had become steeper. (Of course, he thought to himself, I'm just imagining that. Paths don't become steeper overnight.)

    From time to time his best friend would come and visit him in the evening, for a game of chess. This evening, however, his friend called him and excused himself. He said: "Look, I couldn't get up the path to your house today. It must have become steeper." So there was no game of chess that day.

    A couple of weeks later, our man had another great opportunity — he was invited to an interview on television. And again, the catch was that he had to be silent about a few little things, so that the TV company wouldn't refuse to tell the world about him. Minor details, of course. Just a few things that were not so important. Really no harm done, ... and he would be on TV! So the man was silent about the details, and he made the interview. When he walked up the path to his house, it seemed to him quite decidedly that the path had become steeper. (Of course, he thought to himself, I'm just imagining that. Paths don't become steeper overnight.)

    Normally, when he arrived at his house, his wife was already there. This time she wasn't. After a while, when our man had already started wondering, she called him on the phone and said: "Look, I couldn't get up the path to our house today. It must have become steeper." And the man remained alone.

    The next day, he went to a wise man, and asked him for advice. The wise man looked him in the eye and said: "Well, have you been lying recently?" The man looked back and said: "No." So the wise man replied: "Ah. Then you'll be fine. Just go home and see. Everything will be back to normal." The man went home and stood at the path. And now it seemed to him, far from being as normal, that the path was much steeper now. In fact, when he tried to go up, he couldn't. He was continuously sliding back. However much he tried, there was no way getting up to his house.

  • 6.3.2011

    New paper on Death in Venice

    I've put a new article on my papers page: Unreality and Prefiguration of Death (in Venice). This paper combines some of my postings on Thomas Mann's Der Tod in Venedig; I have re-arranged the overall argument, changed several details in the argument, and I now quote from the critical edition (GKFA).

    Primarily I've tried to make the line of thought in my interpretation of the novella clearer; at the same time, I have started to make the connections to my reflections on unreality more explicit.

  • 24.1.2011

    The penciled portrait

    A beautiful young woman came into a tavern. In a corner sat an artist. He offered to draw a portrait of her. She agreed, and he took out his pencil and made the portrait. The woman looked at it, laughed happily, and thanked him. A little later she showed the picture to a friend. "You look very beautiful." the friend told her. The woman went back to the artist and looked at him. He glanced up to her and asked: "Another portrait?" She nodded, and he took out his pencil again. When the picture was finished, the woman looked at it and got angry. "What have you done to me?" she cried. Her hair was flat and ashen, the eyes were cold, her mouth had become a cruel thin line, and her arms and hands looked pale and almost like the bones of a skeleton. "This is what you look like on the other side of the mountain." the artist said. She shot a fiery look at him. "You see, you live on this side, where the sun shines and it's always warm and pleasant. On the other side, however, there's a cold wind blowing steadily, and everything's in eternal shade. This is what you look like on the other side of the mountain." The woman said nothing, flung the pictures at him and turned away.

    That summer, a stranger arrived in the village. He was a good-looking man, and seemed of a pleasant nature. He had seen the world, worked hard for his sizeable income, and his handsome face was weathered from many a storm he'd seen. He was introduced to the beautiful young woman; he helped out here and there, gave her nice presents, and when she was with him, she was always in a good mood, and laughing. A while later he asked her to come with him and be his wife. "Where do you live?" she asked him. "I live on the other side of the mountain."

    So the woman was married and went to live on the other side of the mountain with her husband. Their life was happy at first. As time went by, however, she noticed that strangely her husband was losing his interest in her. He became distant, and immersed himself in melancholic musings. Sometimes he went off for longer periods, not telling her where he spent his time, or when he would return. The woman began to feel irritated and sad every so often. And then again, she thought by herself that there had to be a way to revive those happy feelings she could still remember from their earlier time together. Yet everything she tried was failing her: she couldn't spark that flame again; and even on those very few occasions where she managed to kindle a little warmth and glow, it was quickly blown out by the wind, or faded away in the shadows, and the dark and cold returned in her life.

    One day, she stepped onto the street, and saw the artist who'd portrayed her a long time ago. She greeted him and asked: "Would you draw a picture of me?" The artist shook his head and said: "I've already drawn your portrait. There's nothing to add."

  • 4.12.2010

    Back to the drawing board

    I'm currently reviewing my postings about Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and my interpretation of some strands in the text, with respect to the ideas of beauty and unreality. The goal is to bring them into a more structured and coherent form, and perhaps make an essay out of them.

    I had based my reading on a somewhat older paperback edition; knowing, of course, that I had to consult a critical edition should I want to follow up more seriously on my ideas. Sometimes in such a case the differences are minor, sometimes they are grave; at the beginning, I didn't know how deeply this would interest me, so I took my chances. Unfortunately, I lost that gamble. The paperback edition I used contained the text of one of the earliest editions of the novella (from the Munich Hyperionverlag in 1912); however, it turns out that at the time when it was published Mann had already revised the text for what has to be considered a more authoritative and mature version. And several of the text passages I'd quoted and used for my argument are in fact different in comparison with the critical edition. So this means: back to the drawing board... (or at least I'm going to have some substantial reviewing and reworking to do).

    Update (20110306): See now my Unreality and Prefiguration of Death (in Venice) (also linked from the Papers section).

  • 14.11.2010

    More on Death in story titles

    I have already written a bit about the title of Thomas Mann's Der Tod in Venedig; I've just become aware of yet another, more ludicrous way of reading it: if we take 'Der Tod' to be the name of a character (and not a reference to the process of dying), we can understand it in analogy to such titles as Julius Caesar in Egypt and Iphigeneia in Tauris. Typically, the title of such works indicates a focus on an episode of a protagonist's life which is tied to a certain geographic location. Of course, we'd have to take Death as the main character then, and not Aschenbach. But there is an ocean of research literature which has identified the strange figures of the wanderer, the gondolier and the Venetian musician as Death incarnated, and even Tadzio, the Polish boy, has been viewed as death messenger (mostly guided by Aschenbach's dying thought which refers to him as 'der liebliche und bleiche Psychagog', that is, the hermes psychopompos of ancient mythology). Far-fetched it may be, but there is undeniably an infernal sort of fun in symbolistic speculation.

  • 13.11.2010

    Death in Venice: Beauty, art, and the shimmer of unreality I

    Update (20110306): The material in this post, along with some more details and including a few corrections, is now part of my Unreality and Prefiguration of Death (in Venice) (also linked from the Papers section).

    Aschenbach, we are told, was born with talent, but a weak constitution, a constellation that characterizes many of his family; "[er] hatte doch zeitig erkennen müssen, daß er einem Geschlecht angehörte, in dem nicht das Talent, wohl aber die physische Basis eine Seltenheit war, deren das Talent zu seiner Erfüllung bedarf, — einem Geschlechte, das früh sein Bestes zu geben pflegt und in dem das Können es selten zu Jahren bringt" (193) — an oblique reference to either early death or quick capitulation before the task of creation, both of them preventing great gift from coming to fruition.

    Admirable will and determination, however, have in his own case enabled Aschenbach to produce the works he's gained a reputation for. Working on them has also shaped his life philosophy, in which all achievement is one of having overcome obstacles and resistance, where "beinahe alles Große, was dasteht, als ein Trotzdem dasteh[t], trotz Kummer und Qual, Armut, Verlassenheit, Körperschwäche, Laster, Leidenschaft und tausend Hemmnissen zustande gekommen [ist]. [... D]as war [...] eine Erfahrung, war geradezu die Formel seines Lebens und Ruhmes, der Schlüssel zu seinem Werk" (195).

    It's not at all accidental that his life and work are mentioned in the same breath here: it can't be overstated how important it is to see Aschenbach's way of leading his life and the particular character of his literary work as intertwined. The idea I've just quoted isn't just his guiding thought in life but also what shapes all the characters in his writings. He's formed them after his image, both their inner worlds and their outward actions: "was Wunder also, wenn es auch der sittliche Charakter, die äußere Gebärde seiner eigentümlichsten Figuren war?" (ibd.) And in a sense, the deepest goals (or shall we say: the deepest purpose, for as a fictional character, your ultimate goal is something assigned to you by a creator) of both Aschenbach himself and his characters are identical: Aschenbach's is to produce works of art, and that of his figures is to be works of art. Thus, just as Aschenbach's maxim is to persist and produce faultless beauty, whatever outstanding things mark his characters (good things achieved or bad things committed) has come to existence by their persisting and prevailing over resistance and obstacles to finally become something improbable, something one wouldn't have expected them to become, and moreover something shining, where the efforts and struggles of the path towards it don't show through any more.

    "Blickte man hinein in diese erzählte Welt, sah man die elegante Selbstbeherrschung, die bis zum letzten Augenblick eine innere Unterhöhlung, den biologischen Verfall vor den Augen der Welt verbirgt; die gelbe, sinnlich benachteiligte Häßlichkeit, die es vermag, ihre schwelende Brust zur reinen Flamme zu entfachen, ja, sich zur Herrschaft im Reiche der Schönheit aufzuschwingen; die bleiche Ohnmacht, welche aus den glühenden Tiefen des Geistes die Kraft holt, ein ganzes übermütiges Volk zu Füßen des Kreuzes, zu ihren Füßen niederzuwerfen; die liebenswürdige Haltung im leeren und strengen Dienste der Form; das falsche, gefährliche Leben, die rasch entnervende Sehnsucht und Kunst des gebornen Betrügers" (195).

    (I hasten to throw in a word of caution already here: that we can see both admirable and repulsive traits being transformed into something shimmering is not an accident, and not only is there no unconditional approval here from the narrator, but also, as we will see, it's precisely the dangers of making this transformation into one's central task which will drive the fatal developments in Aschenbach's late life.)

    The flip side of bringing something shining into existence is that something else has to be concealed, even suppressed, and there is a common thread of references to concealment and suppression that runs through what we learn about Aschenbach. At the very beginning of the story there is a mention of a growing fatique the effects of which he thinks must be hidden at all cost: "dieser wachsenden Müdigkeit, von der niemand wissen und die das Produkt auf keine Weise, durch kein Anzeichen des Versagens und der Laßheit verraten durfte" (190). The second chapter reveals that this is in general a deep-seated and long-standing urge in Aschenbach's creative process: in his work, any weakness and imperfection is always welded out, to the point of being fully hidden. "Es war verzeihlich, ja, es bedeutete recht eigentlich den Sieg seiner Moralität, wenn Unkundige die Maja-Welt oder die epischen Massen, in denen sich Friedrichs Heldenleben entrollte, für das Erzeugnis gedrungener Kraft und eines langen Atems hielten, während sie vielmehr in kleinen Tagwerken aus hundert Einzelinspirationen zur Größe emporgeschichtet [waren]" (194). We find the same attitude in the description of the kind of hero that he typically creates in his literary works (in the already quoted passage on 195): the same constant element of not just aiming at success in whatever they do, but also of concealing and suppressing any trace of what had to be overcome to make that success possible, the hiding away of all struggle against resistance and obstruction from the visible results and perceivable outcomes of their lives and actions. And it is emphasized that this is itself by no means a small achievement: "Denn Haltung im Schicksal, Anmut in der Qual bedeutet nicht nur ein Dulden; sie ist eine aktive Leistung, ein positiver Triumph" (195).

    And yet built into this excellence (for an excellence it is without doubt) are the seeds of his later getting adrift, precisely in the form of that element of concealment which is an indispensable ingredient within it, and which grows more dominant in the later stages of his life that make up the rest of the story. That it is an ambivalent ingredient is already clear from the fake youth episode. Not being too far down the path of decline yet, he strongly disapproves of the old man's attempt to make himself seem young and belonging to that group of youths he's traveling with. (Although it's not clear whether Aschenbach's disapproval would be quite as vehement had the concealment be done more competently, i.e. had the deception which the fake youth intended been more total, and successful.) But then, of course, a short time later he does the exact same thing which had triggered his disgust earlier, and certainly there is a continuity between the impulse to suppress any signs of imperfection in his artistic creation and the corresponding desire to be attractive and retouch the outward signs of his age away from his physical appearance.

    I have noted earlier that the encounter with the prefiguration figures is frequently accompanied by a feeling of a drift into unreality on Aschenbach's part. From the above, the function of this feeling in the novella becomes now clear: it identifies an element in his personality that has been there always, employed in his artistic perfectionism, but which has started now to grow disproportionately strong and inappropriate. Along with the forward- pointing reference to his eventual death, the narration identifies the driving force behind the events, both the protagonist's mental decline and the chain of actions and interactions in the plot, in his continuous habit of producing unreality in creating instances of beauty by concealing weakness. When the world around him sinks into inexplicable strangeness (202, 204) after the encounter with an anticipation of his own later self, the story connects the foolish efforts of the fake youth, the vain exertions of the later Aschenbach, and his general and primary drive to exclude ugly reality from his aesthetic vision. It's just that now a process over which he used to have control has taken over, and has thereby made a plaything of its former master (if only for a short moment, at least at this stage of the story).

    (To be continued.)

  • 10.11.2010

    Death in Venice: criminal concealment

    Update (20110306): The material in this post, along with some more details and including a few corrections, is now part of my Unreality and Prefiguration of Death (in Venice) (also linked from the Papers section).

    (More on into Death in Venice: this is a second line of thought leading to the same perspective on the interpretation of the second chapter as my previous post.)

    When we admire the performance of a musician, say, part of what appeals to us is the apparent ease and facility of their doing something which we know is hard and requires an enormous amount of practice and self-control. What applies to artistic performance seems to apply to natural beauty also (think of the proverbial lightness and grace of a gazelle, or the elegance of a black kite's flight). Perhaps, then, a certain careful concealment is a necessary ingredient in the generation of beauty.

    This might look at first a pleasing thought; for we all like the pleasure we can take in beauty, preferably without being reminded of the pains that had to be taken to produce it. At the same time, however, this means turning a blind eye to the excellences needed to withstand those pains, ignoring, that is, personal qualities such as patience and sensibility, thoroughness and will in those who bring instances of beauty into our lives. There is an element of injustice in our admiration of beauty; a deflection of appreciation from qualities of a person towards the attractions of what is a rather impersonal presence in our world (i.e., instances of beauty).

    Sometimes injustice of that kind is taken even further when attention is not just averted from an artist's personal qualities to the aesthetic attributes of his own work, but moved from respecting worthy people to admiring much less deserving, but aesthetically more appealing personalities, in an attitude such as that attributed to both Aschenbach in particular and artistic-minded people in general: "Fast jedem Künstlernaturell ist ein üppiger und verräterischer Hang eingeboren, Schönheit schaffende Ungerechtigkeit anzuerkennen und aristokratischer Bevorzugung Teilnahme und Huldigung entgegenzubringen." (212) The injustice expressed in this stance is precisely this: that considerations of personal respect and fair dealing are of second importance when it comes to producing a bit of beauty. And although it hides behind worship for an abstract and universal ideal (that of beauty), it is in essence a selfish and mean attitude. In the passage quoted above, it's employed to account for Aschenbach's approval of privileging, even spoiling a beautiful child ("ein verzärteltes Vorzugskind, von parteilicher und launischer Liebe getragen", ibd.); it's much more marked and appalling when he decides to keep his knowledge about the cholera outbreak for himself in order not to risk departure of Tadzio's family (thereby severely endangering the life and health of someone whom, curiously, he professes to love). The narrator draws immediately a strong parallel between that secrecy and crime, indeed: "'Man soll schweigen!' dachte Aschenbach erregt [...] 'Man soll das verschweigen!' [...] Denn der Leidenschaft ist, wie dem Verbrechen, die gesicherte Ordnung und Wohlfahrt des Alltags nicht gemäß, und [...] jede Verwirrung und Heimsuchung der Welt muß ihr willkommen sein." He welcomes "dieses schlimme Geheimnis der Stadt, das mit seinem eigenen Geheimnis verschmolz, und an dessen Bewahrung auch ihm so sehr gelegen war. Denn der Verliebte besorgte nichts, als daß Tadzio abreisen könnte" (242). This self-serving participation in a dangerous cover-up is repeatedly mentioned, e.g. on 246, and again, paralleling the exact wording of the earlier passage, on 256-257. There, Aschenbach has just heard confirmation of the ugly truth about the disease's outbreak and received a strong recommendation of immediate departure from the English clerk; he even for a second considers warning Tadzio's mother; yet then he once more gets carried away by his fateful passion: "'Man soll schweigen!' flüsterte er heftig. Und: 'Ich werde schweigen!' Das Bewußtsein seiner Mitwisserschaft, seiner Mitschuld berauschte ihn" (257).

    Irresponsible secrecy in the name of a passion which burns him up is something only found during the final stages of decline in Aschenbach. However, a tendency to conceal and (if necessary) suppress, even unjustly, whatever needs to be blanketed and hidden in the name of art and beauty — that tendency was present with him for all his life. It's not (to begin answering a question I have repeatedly posed) merely a mental decline we're witnessing here, not just the weakness of an aging spirit. Here we have something that's been latent in him, in his life and work, all along. The second chapter, with its almost academic account of Aschenbach's character and his artistic profile, serves proof and confirmation for this, giving insight in his background and thus bringing out those propensities which sharpen into visible decline during the later chapters of the novella.

  • 9.11.2010

    Death in Venice: Levels of fictionality

    Update (20110306): The material in this post, along with some more details and including a few corrections, is now part of my Unreality and Prefiguration of Death (in Venice) (also linked from the Papers section).

    (I'm continuing my explorations into Death in Venice from my earlier posts.)

    There is another level of fictionality in the novella which we haven't considered yet: Aschenbach is a writer of fictional works, and thus in addition to the fictional world of the story, we have the respective worlds of those fictions-within-fiction.

    When we theorize about the relationship between fiction and reality, what we have in mind is usually that between what belongs to the story and what belongs to the real world: for instance, there is Venice, with its characteristic layout, its canals and gondolas, in both worlds, but there's a famous author named Aschenbach only in the fictional world of the novel, not in the real world; a string of encounters with death-symbolizing figures which drive a life towards its end can occur in fiction, but not in reality; there's typically a strong sense of purpose and meaning in every single episode that happens in the fictional world (because the author's put it there expressly to fulfill a purpose in his narrative, and to have meaning in his overall artistic plan) — but when we attempt to find something even closely as coherent, single-stranded and interconnected in what goes on in our own world, it's always only partial, and generally feels as if we're reading it into what's happening, not out of it.

    A parallel distinction can be made, however, between the fictional world of the novella and the fictional worlds inside it, that is, between Aschenbach's world and the worlds of his own literary works. When we read reflections in Aschenbach's voice, or from his point of view, it's that relationship about which they are, not the relationship between his world and ours.

    And to be very strict and precise here: the interaction between reality and fiction does not necessarily have to be the same on all levels. A different set of laws and rules and characteristics may hold with respect to the relationship between the real world and a fictional world on the one hand compared to the relationship between that same fictional world and the world of a fiction within that fiction. Thus, when Aschenbach reflects about the nature of art, about reality and unreality, the contrast he is looking at can only be the contrast between his world (the fictional world of the story) and the worlds of his works, such as the world of the Maya in which one of his main works is set.

    It's much more difficult to decide what to make of reflections of the same sort when they're made by the narrator of the story: are they provided by the author, Thomas Mann, to guide (or detract) our interpretation, or are they made as if from the point of view of Aschenbach, illuminating the innermost thoughts and motives of that character, which are nonetheless constituted and formed by the world of that character? In other words, when we read reflections about the relationship of art and life, or reality and unreality, do they refer to the contrast between our world and that of Death in Venice, or to the contrast between the latter and the fictions it contains? (And it's not at all clear that the author wants us to be able to decide: he may be keeping it systematically ambiguous; perhaps the narrator's views are even intended to connect both contrasts, suggesting that they're really one and the same.)

    When Aschenbach thinks about his own motives and decisions, he uses pieces of aesthetical theory, allusions to literature and philosophy, just as we would expect from an educated and intellectually-minded person of his stature. At the same time, however, we're given clear signals from the narration that his thoughts are self-deceptive (sometimes ironically: "[s]o dachte der Enthusiasmierte; so vermochte er zu empfinden", 232; or more direct: "[s]o war des Betörten Denkweise bestimmt, so suchte er sich zu stützen, seine Würde zu wahren", 246). Can we take Aschenbach's reflections at face value then, as clues towards an understanding of what's going on in him during that final stage of his life? Or are we to read them as expressions of his dangerous drift away from everything that's grounded in reality, his unstoppable slide into unreality?

    Not all invocations of theoretical background and the psychology of the artist as such are given directly in the voice of Aschenbach; some are comments on on the artist's state of mind, made by the narrator: "Fast jedem Künstlernaturell ist ein üppiger und verräterischer Hang eingeboren, Schönheit schaffende Ungerechtigkeit anzuerkennen und aristokratischer Bevorzugung Teilnahme und Huldigung entgegenzubringen" (212); "es war wohl an dem, daß der Alternde [i.e. Aschenbach] die Ernüchterung nicht wollte, daß der Rausch ihm zu teuer war. Wer enträtselt Wesen und Gepräge des Künstlertums! Wer begreift die tiefe Instinktverschmelzung von Zucht und Zügellosigkeit, worin es beruht! Denn heilsame Ernüchterung nicht wollen zu können, ist Zügellosigkeit." (235) Especially the almost journalistic-sounding second chapter is clearly detached and distanced from any immediate closeness with Aschenbach's psychological interior; it's written in biographical style, almost, in parts, as if it were an anticipation of his obituary. Some of these literate comments from the narrator are consistent and continous with the views later expressed by Aschenbach; others, however, clearly display a general tendency in Aschenbach to both tolerate and seek a certain sort of deception (and self-deception). Most revealingly, it is a tendency which is presented not only as a pecularity in the aging Aschenbach who travels to Venice — the biographical sketch makes it quite clear that it had been a characteristic of all his life and work.

    To understand the deeper sources of his collapse, which both connect his last episode with the whole of his life and motivate both the integral, psychological forces and the external, plot-mechanical elements (such as the prefiguration characters), we must get to terms with this tendency.

  • 4.11.2010


    Here's a thought experiment. You're in the job market. After a bit of searching, you find a company that seems a perfect fit, just what you've been dreaming about. Let's call them 'CoolTec'. The more research you do, the better it looks to you, so you send in your resume, and you actually get invited to a job interview. After the interview, which went well (although you have a tiny little nagging doubt somewhere inside your head), you're eagerly awaiting any news. And indeed — you get a job offer! When you drop by their offices for the next time, to sort out the remaining details and sign your contract, however, they tell you that, actually, you weren't exactly the person they'd been looking for: they were interested in someone with a different profile. They even had two candidates fitting that profile, but they both declined, so they're giving you a chance. What are you going to do?

    I think the right thing to do here is to politely say 'No, thanks.' (We're civilized people, so there's no point in making a scene. But they deserve to be told clearly that a self-respecting person wouldn't be interested any more after having received news like that.)

    It would have been a different thing if they'd told you that they were initially looking for someone with a different profile, but that their interest had been awakened by what you said in the interview, and now they've loosened their requirements because they realized you also had something attractive to offer. As it is, though, the only possible conclusion is that they don't deserve you. (The only possible conclusion, that is, which is compatible with self-respect.) You were told that you are merely a fallback solution, not chosen for your own merits, but just for lack of other options. There's nowhere to go together from that place.

    Self-respect can very dominantly guide actions, like in this example, or it can remain more a background influence on our behavior. It can be more or less strongly developed, and actually lose out in the battle against other attitudes: for instance, the job applicant in the thought experiment may be fearful of not getting any job at all, and so be glad to accept. He could decide that the offered salary was so good he just had to take it. (In both cases, that choice would in the end only express a higher valuation put on things like money or a lack of self-confidence resulting in thinking badly of one's chances for getting another good job.)

    A different consideration that might seem to trump self-respect here is this: why not take the job and show them, convince them, that you're actually the better candidate? Wouldn't it mean to give way too quickly if you drop out at the mere sight of adversity, at a simple mention that you're not welcomed with widely open doors? You may have to fight a little, but in the end you'll be able to show them that you're worth more than they thought. And perhaps there is something in this line of thought: especially in longer-lasting relationships (such as an employment would hopefully be) an estimation can be built up over time, and it really should be something which didn't come from a quick glance at a resume, but rather from a trust and valuation that came into existence over time during joint pursuit of the companie's vision. Sometimes, personal pride shouldn't destroy the prospects of a mutually beneficial future.

    However, any relationship (including, again, work relationships) requires respect for others in all dealings, and how would you be able to maintain respect generally if entry was bought with sacrificing self-respect, which is the most basic and most fundamental form of all respect? Can something that started off with foul compromise on the most important personal level develop into something so beneficial that it can repay and repair that damage? (And remember: how would it do that? Even the greatest job satisfaction and whatever material compensation CoolTec may have to offer seems to have little weight compared to your being at ease with yourself.) This is a start determinedly in the wrong direction, and every further step in that direction will only get you further away from, not closer to, what's good for you. If there's an appropriate stance, then it's to decline that offer. (Perhaps it's also, in the end, the better outcome for the company, although that certainly is a shaky parallel, for companies in general aren't persons, and work on different principles and with different goals.)

    (In the CoolTec example, the case is relatively clear-cut. Next, I'm going to compare this with Josef K.'s attitude throughout The Trial, which looks superficially similar. There is a fine line, however, here to draw between self-respect, in the sense discussed, and pride, which can be a character fault in certain cases. Someone who thinks so highly of himself that he expects to be recognized without having to demonstrate his abilities, or making his case, may be trapped in a delusion.)

  • 12.9.2010

    Telling the unreal from the real

    I'm starting from an observation made by John Austin, in chapter VII of his Sense and Sensibilia, where he discusses the use of the term 'real'.

    According to Austin, we use 'real' only when we assume (normally implicitly) that there is a way for something to be otherwise (i.e. it could be fictional, or imaginary, or fake). We also assume, when we use the word, that there is some chance that what we refer to isn't real — if the chance that it is fake (or more generally: unreal in some sense) was only negligible, we wouldn't use the term. We need it only for emphasizing that X might not be real, but in fact is real. In other words, those situations in language use where the use of 'real' is appropriate are those where a possibility of unreality is in play.

    In this way, our use of 'real' implies a capacity to distinguish between the real and the unreal. This capacity is not a generic one: we have ways to differentiate between fake items and real items, and we have other ways to differentiate between imaginary ones and real ones; again, there are certain ways to find out whether something or someone is fictional (as opposed to real), or merely possible (as opposed to actual). There is no common structure to these abilities (or at least not an obvious one) — they just have a weak negative point in common. (Neither has there to be a single unified capacity attached to each class of 'non-reality', of course. There isn't just a single capacity to distinguish fake from real, or one single way to tell fictional from real. There are always several, situation-dependent ways to do that.)

    In his article about existence in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Barry Miller mentions that 'real' is sometimes considered an excluder predicate: to say about something that it is real expresses just the claim that it is not fictional, not imaginary, etc. (Miller then goes on to argue that 'existence' must mean more than that, i.e. to say of something that it exists is to say something more than just saying that it is real.) This point again is in agreement with Austin's discussion. (Although Miller's terminology seems more useful to me than Austin's.)

    I find that a very natural way of talking about 'real'. In an earlier post I have approached it on a rather similar route. (I think I've also done Nozick some injustice in that post by confusing the distinction between 'being real' and 'existing'; I've got to make some corrections there, but I leave that to a future post.) In part it feels natural because we have normally a good sense for what is real and what isn't, in a broad range of cases. And that's not because of some mysterious cognitive capacity: it's just because we have some common ways of telling unreality from reality. The most simple of these is of course where we have ourselves imagined or otherwise brought about the unreality in question — that is, we have just told a story, or a lie, or dreamed something. In these cases, we can tell what's unreal from the rest because we've just made it up ourselves. In other cases, we haven't produced the fictional or imaginary things ourselves, but we have pretty good evidence still that they are fictional or imaginary (e.g. when we've just read them in a novel, or seen them in a movie). Sometimes we really don't have any other evidence than just a certain distrust of the source (an in these cases we are probably more often mistaken than in the others listed before).

    Obviously, we can be mistaken, and think of something as real which actually is an elaborate or sophisticated lie; there are also some extreme cases of fiction mistaken for reality (as H.G. Wells' War of the worlds in the 1938 radio adaptation). Yet that doesn't show that there is no way in principle to distinguish between reality and unreality. It only shows that even though we have this ability, it might fail us in some scenarios.

  • 3.7.2010

    Internal forces and their external reflections in fiction

    Update (20110306): See also my Unreality and Prefiguration of Death (in Venice) (also linked from the Papers section).

    This takes up the discussion that ended my last post on Der Tod in Venedig. I wrote that the developments in the story cannot be explained as driven by external events alone, without reference to their connection with Aschenbach's inner condition and personal history; but equally, that looking at psychological forces won't suffice either, for that wouldn't do justice to how the text is crafted.

    What follows from this is that we cannot read the story as a psychogram, as a report on events that merely show the decay of a strong personality; much less can we view it as a drama where external forces drive the protagonist into disaster. None of these readings does justice to the setup. The mistake in both of them would be to assume that the events that make up Death in Venice happen in the real world, or at least in a world that is sufficiently like the real world. But that's not so: the development of the novella doesn't follow the logic of the real world. It follows the logic of its fictional world, and that logic is different.

    Just in what respects is it different? No dark magic is going on (none of the prefiguration characters has supernatural powers, nor does anything happen in the plot that cannot be fully rationally accounted for), and there are no obvious artificial coincidences (such as di ex machina). Still, the world of the novella is very different from the real world. It has a consistently restricted focus on the main character (nothing happens, or at least we learn about nothing which happens, without significance for Aschenbach), nothing is accidental, it is almost as if all developments were following a pre-determined scheme. And of course, that's not accidentally so.

    Crafting a fictional world provides the author with the opportunity to arrange external events so that they exhibit a relationship to the inner goings-on in their protagonists. Such relationships between the external and the internal can be of many kinds: the external events can be specially arranged so as to expose the psychological setup (i.e. the author deliberately puts a protagonist in a situation in which aspects of her psyche become clearly visible, are expressed in her views and actions, and so on); the external might be arranged so as to express moods and emotions (for instance, when the protagonist is sad and in generally depressed moods, his surroundings are depicted in a corresponding way, it is dark, cold and it's raining, tree leaves are falling down, birdsong is dying away, etc.); or finally the external can symbolize elements of the internal (such as a house that starts showing cracks and paint peeling off in correspondence with the decay of the relationships in the family that lives in it).

    In short, the setup of the external (i.e. external with respect to the people in the story, the protagonists) environment and events is far from accidental, it has a function in the story. That accounts for the selectiveness in literary texts: the author doesn't just describe any elements of the surroundings of their protagonists, but only those which matter, i.e. which fulfill one of the tasks I have listed above. It also explains the focus on the main person, and generally the directedness, that is, the impression that we gain that in this fictional world everything follows a scheme, that the plot rolls into a pre-determined direction.

    So much for the relationship between the inner and the outer; this goes some way in the direction of answering the first of the two questions I listed earlier; what about the second, which had to do with the underlying valuation?

  • 1.7.2010

    On death in movie titles

    And since we are on the topic of translating titles: what is it with this morbid fascination that death exerts on the translators of James Bond movie titles from English into German?

    It all started in 1981 with "In tödlicher Mission" (On a deadly mission) — not an obvious translation, one might say, of "For your eyes only". After the untranslatable "Octopussy", next was "A view to a kill" in 1985, which was rendered "Im Angesicht des Todes" (In the face of death) ... at least a little closer to the original (and with a nice little word play that makes use of the allusion to visual vocabulary: 'Angesicht' has a common root with the German word for sight, so there is after all a certain connection to the term 'view' in the original title). But have you noticed that again 'death' (Tod) makes an appearance in the German title where there is no direct counterpart of it in the English? That's two; three makes a pattern, so let's see how it continues.

    In 1987, Timothy Dalton's first movie was "The living daylights". Not a chance to get death into that, wouldn't you say? Well, there's no limits to creativity: the German translation was "Der Hauch des Todes" (The breath of death). Damned if I see the connection, but they managed to get death into it all right.

    Shall I go on and mention that the next one was "License to kill" (1989), with the obvious (and very precise), but consequently death-laden translation "Lizenz zum Töten"? After that, beginning with "Goldeneye", death has interestingly withdrawn from the German titles. That's a pity: it was good fun to watch it sneaking in one time after the other.

  • 30.6.2010

    On precision in the translation of story titles

    The title of Thomas Mann's famous novella is usually translated into English as Death in Venice (compare also the Italian title of Luchino Visconti's film adaptation: Morte a Venezia); however, this somewhat obscures that the original German title carries a definite article: Der Tod in Venedig. So what the tale is about isn't just something generic about dying in Venice (of which, one might think then, the particular death of Aschenbach, Mann's protagonist, is just one instance). It really is about an individual death — the culmination of a specific life characterized by unique determination, discipline and success on the one hand and on the other an incapacity to withstand, against all better judgment, the weakening influence of a certain constellation of circumstances. (Perhaps it's not merely an incapacity to resist them, but also an element of actively seeking and following them that is in play here.) It's also, crucially, an artist's life that is portrayed, but then again a life originating in a family tradition centered around a sense of duty, an adherence to discipline and austerity. There are, in other words, not so many people who could die such a death (in Venice or elsewhere) as Aschenbach's; and it's the individual end of such a life that Mann portrays — an aspect that is obscured by the imprecise translation.

  • 29.6.2010

    What is the source of Aschenbach's morbid tendency?

    Update (20110306): See also my Unreality and Prefiguration of Death (in Venice) (also linked from the Papers section).

    I think I was wrong when I wrote that Aschenbach, in Thomas Mann's novella Der Tod in Venedig, is led into his eventual death by 'following an instance of beauty wherever it leads, and whatever the consequences may be' (in one of my earlier posts on the subject of prefiguration in that text). It's true of course that Aschenbach's all-overriding infatuation with the boy Tadzio is the dominant factor in his losing touch with reality (as I've argued in the post quoted above). But this influence only sets in after he arrives in Venice, and thus cannot be what sets off the development in the first place. Furthermore, what does get Aschenbach astray is, even though triggered externally, something in his own psychological condition: his desire to escape the tough work regime he has imposed on himself ("Fluchtdrang war sie, daß er es sich eingestand, diese Sehnsucht ins Ferne und Neue, diese Begierde nach Befreiung, Entbürdung und Vergessen, — der Drang hinweg vom Werke, von der Alltagsstätte eines starren, kalten und leidenschaftlichen Dienstes", 190); his longing for the exotic and magical (which lets him end up in Venice, of all places; most expressly at 200); and perhaps a certain morbid relaxation in the face of death allusions (think of his contemplation of death mysticism at the Munich cemetery, 187, and his willingness to give in to the coffinesque comfort of the Venetian gondola, 206 and 208).

    So the question isn't just, as I wrote, why Aschenbach's realization that his attempted synthesis between discipline, hard work, and dedication on the one hand and the service of beauty on the other fails — it's also why the drives that set off the development which exposes that failure start earlier (and why, indeed, they start at all). They're not triggered by the lure of beauty and the force of eros. Once the development has started, however, these aesthetic elements provide the most powerful of all imaginable amplifiers. Is therefore the trap into which Aschenbach falls a multi-staged one? Is it only after fertile ground has been prepared by fatigue and escape fantasies that corrosive aestheticism can complete its destructive work?

    But if that's so, then why is there an external trigger (in all those prefiguration characters) every time to bring these psychological states to the front and enable them to control Aschenbach's decisions? Mann's whole carefully crafted framework of symbols and allusions, parallels and consequences, seems to have the singular purpose of producing a strongly coherent, compulsively unwinding plot which at closer examination leaves not the minutest detail to chance — everything's in the scheme, so to speak. (And that's what primarily constitutes the high literary quality and artistic value of the novella, after all.) The function of the prefiguration characters is to drive Aschenbach towards the fateful setup in Venice. And thus, psychological state alone can't account for what sets the events of the story in motion.

  • 28.6.2010

    The (term) 'perceptacle'

    Since I've been asked (actually multiple times) what the term 'perceptacle' in the title of my earlier post about Poe and perception means: it's a word play; the more obvious components are the title of Poe's story ('The spectacles') and the notion of perception, which is an important ingredient in my discussion. In addition, there is a metaphysical concept originating in Plato's late work, namely, the 'receptacle' (hypodoché in Greek). Plus, the notion of the spectacular might have played a role, too.

    The most interesting association here, of course, is with the receptacle. I guess a fascinating road of interpretation would be to compare the role perception plays in our daily life, and its relations to valuations, with the metaphysical idea of a receptacle and specific qualities that impress on it.


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