By Charlie Lincoln
Upon reading Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, my impression is that Aschenbach is an analogy to Parsifal — as represented in Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. There is a notion that the Fisher King can be healed by the redeeming power of the metaphor of the Holy Grail. This is my thesis.
This is more of a literary analysis of myth and metaphor as a representation of the psychological elements present in the book.
When I initially read the book, I found it surprisingly better than what I thought it was going to be. It is certainly a classic that is embedded in with a visionary technique that takes you to wide fly to tunes and shares an amazing vision. It’s also a delightful journey into the streets and feelings of Venice. It surprisingly has political undertones. Even though that’s not necessarily the main service important part of the book.
In Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, Amfortas is the Fisher King. Amfortas is the wounded king in Montsalvat. He alone has the location of the hidden Holy Grail that he reveals every Good Friday to heal the knights of the Round Table. Wagner reinterprets Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval myth of Percival — renamed Parsifal in Wagner’s creation.
Arguably, Eschenbach’s creation is “fake” — and Wagner’s is a further abberation from that “fake” myth. Mann wrote of Wagner that “The Germans should be made to decide between [the humanity] of Goethe and [the irrational mythologizing of] Wagner. They cannot have both. But I fear they will choose Wagner.” Nothing could be more prescient — and terrifying.
Throughout Mann’s Death in Venice there is reference to Plato’s Phaedrus and Nietzche. Both are compelling.
So who are the characters analogous to?
Aschenbach is the man who has a wound that can only be healed by the instrument that injured him. Aschenbach is Amfortas awaiting “Parsifal” to come heal him. As such, Aschenbach does not know who will save him.
Tadzio is Parsifal. Aschenbach recongizes this subconsiously. Tadzio represents the salvation that Aschenbach longs for — the return to youth. Indeed, this salvation intially horrified Aschenbach in the begining when he saw the man returning to youth. In poetic representation of the Ouroboros (Greek: “οὐροβόρος”) — the ἓν τὸ πᾶν (“The All is One”) representation of returning to the begining — Aschenbach becomes that which horrified him. He became that which saves him. The spear that wounded him becomes the thing that saves him — in other words, the return to youth that firghtened Aschenbach is what he returns to in a circular motion.
The ending scene on the water is the metaphorical representation of communion with the Holy Grail. Moreover, the scene of “seeing” Tadzio on the water simmering and looking away is the return to the subconcious. Indeed, Jung said that water is the universal representation of the collective unconcious. Right at the end, Aschenbach accepts salvation and becomes is redeemed to youth.
Yet, in a Hegelian way, the sublation of return to youth occurs in death. This may not be accurate in its particular. Indeed, I think that the ending should be read as a metaphorical representation of death. Aschenbach’s old life dies and he is allowed to have a second chance. He is reborn. He dies, the news is “respectfully accepted” in the world — this is the only way it could have been interpreted by the world that has not accessed the magnificence of the collective unconscious. But Aschenbach partakes in the metaphoric Holy Grail with a second chance to pursue the life he has always sought. Aschenbach no longer needs to be passive. He can be an active participant in life.
I have only been able to start to admire this story when I wrote this. I have written the interpretation of the story that I needed to read. Thus, this interpretation is a personal reaction — ultimately what I needed — and would like to share with others.
© Charles Edward Andrew Lincoln IV