Did Thomas Mann intend Death in Venice to be no more than a discourse on beauty - beauty which happened to be
incarnate in a fourteen-year-old boy, but which could have
manifested itself in a girl of the same age, an adult of either sex, a painting or other artefact, a feature of nature? Or did he consciously or
subsconsciously reflect the sexual attraction that handsome pubescent boys have for some men and women?
There is only one brief reference to erotic longing in Mann's story, when Aschenbach is contemplating beauty and it is not linked directly with Tadzio's good looks. That means that the extent to which Death in Venice should be seen as sublimated sexual desire depends entirely on the reader. For those who are uncomfortable with all homosexual behaviour, particularly when the younger partner is under the current legal age of consent, it is easier to avoid the subject altogether and to see the story as a paean only to beauty in the abstract.
Some of those who are undisturbed by the idea of sex between men nevertheless feel uneasy at the idea of sex between the 50-year-old Aschenbach and 14 -year-old Tadzio. For these readers the ideal response is more likely to be a combination of abstract beauty and the promise of sexual union when Tadzio grows up and achieves both full manhood and the legal status that will allow him to embrace Aschenbach or another man as equal.
For others, Aschenbach and Tadzio represent idealised, unrealised ephebophilia - the sexual attraction for adolescent boys that was legitimised in the idealised male relationships of ancient Greece.
(Not to be confused with paedophilia - sexual attraction towards pre-pubescent children
of either sex.) For them Tadzio half-naked on the
beach is the modern kouros - the sculpture that portrayed the Greek
In ancient Greece sexual relations between a 40 year old man and a 14 year old boy were considered normal. Sex between two
40 year old men was considered abnormal.
In modern Europe sexual relations between two 40 year old men are considered normal.
Sex between a 40 year old man and a 14 year old boy is considered abnormal.
In 4000 AD we have no idea what will be generally accepted sexual behaviour between males.
ideal of young manhood - a kouros that in Greek terms was a sexually active being, often with other men. In this idealised world Tadzio and
Aschenbach would woo each other in a courtly ritual that ended up in a fully consensual sexual union - a union which modern attitudes say the younger partner is unable to enter into.
So, which interpretation should we place on Thomas Mann's Tadzio - the asexual, the partly sexual or the fully sexual? None of them - or all of them. We know nothing about the boy; the very limited evidence we have is filtered through Aschenbach's responses. The older man is aware that the boy returns his gaze, but that does not tell us what was going
through the youth's mind.
Did Tadzio understand why he was being watched? Was he aware of the possibility of sex with a man? If he was, would be he interested? Did he see Aschenbach as a sexual figure, a symbol of authority? A curiosity? An irrelevance? Did the teenager feel pride or embarrassment, amusement or curiosity at being the focus of Aschenbach's attention? Did he want to talk to the writer or was he afraid to do so? How long an impact did Aschenbach's attention have on Tadzio? Did it die the day the old man died or did it live with him forever? Did he grow up to be gay, straight or asexual? Happily married or forever single? Did that summer in Venice enrich Tadzio or damage him? For Tadzio was there even the inkling of sex in Venice?
We have no answer to any of these questions. We can only imagine, as Martin Foreman does in Tadzio Speaks . . .
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