Death in Venice: Top Ten Quotes

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  1. “Yet whether the pilgrim air the stranger wore kindled his fantasy or whether some other physical or psychical influence came in play, he could not tell; but he felt the most surprising consciousness of a widening or inward barriers, a kind of vaulting unrest, a youthfully ardent thirst for distant scenes—a feeling so lovely and so new, or at least so long ago outgrown and forgot, that he stood there rooted to the spot, his eyes on the ground and his hands clasped behind him, exploring these sentiments of his, their bearing and scope.”

    p. 5: Out on a walk to chase away his writer’s block, Aschenbach sees the strange man in the stone mason’s yard. The stranger, clearly a traveler, is incongruent with the surroundings; unlike the stone monuments rooted to the ground, he is fancy free. Unlike the prosaic descriptions of lives lived well that are chiseled upon tomb stones, he seems irreverent, even defiant. He is not the sort of man that Aschenbach approves of, yet he stirs in Aschenbach a desire to uproot himself from his daily life and to travel to places unseen. It is this moment that marks the beginning of Aschenbach’s  journey into himself.
  2. “Aschenbach had once given direct expression . . . to the idea that almost everything conspicuously great is great in despite: has come into being in defiance of affliction and pain; poverty, destitution, bodily weakness, vice, passion, and a thousand other obstructions. And that was more than observation—it was the fruit of experience, it was precisely the formula of his life and fame, it was the key to his work.”

    p. 11: Aschenbach’s writing—and his fame—have been based on a belief that struggles reveal moral character. He himself has struggled to maintain a strict devotion to his art, giving up pleasure and companionship and travel. He believes his sacrifices have qualified him to be the arbiter of morality through his writings.
  3. “Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous—to poetry.”

    p. 24: The narrator is commenting on the solitariness of the artist. Aschenbach has always been solitary. He has lived a life of the mind, rather than a life of the body. The power of the mind to imagine life, however, is powerful; Aschenbach has been able to bring to life on the page experiences that he himself has never actually experienced. The question raised by this quotation, however, is whether living a life of the mind for the sake of poetry really living?
  4. “He whose preoccupation is with excellence longs fervently to find rest in perfection; and is not nothingness a form of perfection?”

    p. 31: Aschenbach loves to gaze at the ocean, whose endless but beautiful nothingness pleases him. The narrator suggests that Aschenbach can let go of the burdens of the mind, of the artist he is, and simply “float.” The danger in succumbing to this type of perfection, however, is that it is nothingness and is suggestive of death. As Aschenbach’s journey forces him to look inside himself and face the fact that he has grown old, he must also find a way to understand the idea of death. In this instance, death seems a welcome reprieve from the heaviness of life.
  5. “He sat quite still, unseen at his high post, and looked within himself. His features were lively, he lifted his brows; a smile, alert, inquiring, vivid, widened the mouth. Then he raised his head, and with both hands, hanging limp over the chair-arms, he described a slow motion, a palms outward, a lifting and turning movement, as though to indicate a wide embrace. It was the gesture of welcome, a calm and deliberate acceptance of what might come.”

    p. 40: After trying to leave Venice, Aschenbach is back in his hotel room and seated at his window, looking out at the ocean and at Tadzio walking below. At this moment he decides that by staying in Venice, he will turn his back on his measured, carefully prescribed life and instead abandon himself to fate—and give in to his inappropriate but powerful passion for Tadzio.

  6. “For beauty, my Phædrus, beauty alone, is lovely and visible at once. For, mark you, it is the sole aspect of the spiritual which we can perceive through our senses, or bear so to perceive. Else what should become of us, if the divine, if reason and virtue and truth, were to speak to us through the senses?”

    p. 45: Aschenbach imagines a conversation between Socrates, the Greek sage known as the arbiter of knowledge and morality, and the youth Phædrus in which Socrates explains that beauty is the only way men—because they are human—can “touch” the divine without being killed by such pure knowledge. Aschenbach imagines this conversation as the same he might have with Tadzio, who for him embodies divine beauty and therefore seems to be a god transformed for human eyes. The fact that he’s chosen Socrates, a person who most likely would not say such things, shows that Aschenbach has equated himself with Socrates, but he justifies his downfall by imagining that such a sage as Socrates could fall, too.
  7. “The city’s evil secret mingled with the one in the depths of his heart—and he would have staked all he possessed to keep it, since in his infatuation he cared for nothing but to keep Tadzio here, and owned to himself not without horror, that he could not exist were the lad to pass from his sight."

    p. 54: Aschenbach has learned that cholera has broken out in Venice, although the Venetians do not publicize this fact for fear of running off tourists. Like Venice, Aschenbach will not tell the Polish family about the outbreak for fear that they will leave and he will no longer see Tadzio. Instead of feeling reviled by his lack of moral duty, Aschenbach revels in his immoral, self-preserving choice.
  8. “. . . passion paralyses good taste and makes its victim accept with rapture what a man in his senses would either laugh at or turn from with disgust.”

    p. 59: Aschenbach is amused and entertained by the musician who comes to the hotel one night. Where before he would have condemned the vulgar, burlesque performance as crude and beneath his notice (not “art” in other words), now he feeds on it. He has lost his belief in the moral responsibilities of art; instead, he basks in the lack of moral responsibility that comes with succumbing to pleasure.
  9. “For you know we poets cannot walk the way of beauty without Eros as our companion and guide. We may be heroic after our fashion, disciplined warriors of our craft, yet we are all like women, for we exult in passion, and love is still our desire—our craving and our shame. And from this you will perceive that we poets can be neither wise nor worthy citizens.”

    p. 72: Aschenbach again imagines a conversation between Socrates and Phædrus, and this time he imagines Socrates justifying an artist’s surrender to pleasure. Aschenbach again uses—and twists—Socrates’ teachings to justify his own behavior. Socrates advocated that self-knowledge was the path to virtue. Aschenbach believes he has discovered his true self—a wanton, primal self—but he has not achieved virtue, but it’s opposite. He thus concludes that because artists are capable of reaching into their true selves, and because an artist’s true self is necessarily wanton, an artist cannot be the model of virtue.
  10. “It seemed to him the pale and lovely Summoner out there smiled at him and beckoned; as though, with the hand he lifted from his hip, he pointed outward as he hovered on before into an immensity of richest expectation. And, as so often before, he rose to follow.”

    p. 75: As Aschenbach sits on the beach and watches Tadzio on the beach, before the boy departs the hotel with his family, he imagines Tadzio to be a “lovely Summoner,” an angel of death. In his mind he follows; in his body, he actually passes away. For Achenbach, who has all along tried to fight his own death, the only way to accept death is to believe it is beautiful. His surrender to beauty and passion was necessary to enable him to surrender to death, even to welcome it.

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