The Terrifying Reciprocity of the Aesthetic Gaze in Visconti's 'Death in Venice'

Björn Andrésen as Tadzio in Death in Venice (1971) (IMDB)

Luchino Visconti's oft-misunderstood Death in Venice (Morte a Venezia) tenderly explores how beauty stares back at us and demands that we accept and acknowledge its terrible contradictions.

Death in Venice
Luchino Visconti


19 Feb 2019


Character Gustav von Aschenbach (Dick Bogarde)—a famous writer in Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice (1912), but a celebrated composer in Luchino Visconti's film adaptation (Morte a Venezia, 1971) —sits among the guests at the Hotel des Bains on the Lido in Venice. The guests are all awaiting dinner to be served and they behave in that manner that groups of people who don't know each other observe when they are waiting to have a bodily need satisfied. They sit in groups consisting of families and acquaintances, they occupy themselves with sundry small tasks and preoccupations (newspapers, chit chat, puzzles, or simply looking about at their surroundings). They mostly avoid eye contact with strangers and avoid being noticed as they take notice of their neighbors. Aschenbach makes sure that the seat he has chosen is not occupied by someone else (by asking a nearby lady and then quickly turning from her once he has verified the vacancy) and he sits to read a newspaper.

Glancing up from his newspaper, he notices a family consisting (at that moment) of three rather dourly dressed girls, their governess, and a long-haired boy of 14 dressed in a sailor suit. Mann writes:

Aschenbach noticed with astonishment the lad's perfect beauty. His face recalled the noblest moment of Greek sculpture—pale, with a sweet reserve, with clustering honey-coloured ringlets, the brow and nose descending in one line, the winning mouth, the expression of pure and godlike serenity. Yet with all this chaste perfection of form it was of such unique personal charm that the observer thought he had never seen, either in nature or art, anything so utterly happy and consummate. - [Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories, H.T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Vintage Books, 1954), 25.]

From the very start Aschenbach dissembles his interest in the boy from himself and indeed many critics (literary and film critics) have been happy to follow the character's lead, claiming that the story is essentially about an encounter with unimaginable beauty in the waning moments of life, and while Aschenbach pushes the envelope of acceptable thoughts concerning a sensual interest in a minor, he never crosses the line. His interest is cerebral rather than carnal. Mann himself was less cagey on the subject. He wrote a friend in 1911 declaring that he was working on "a novella, serious in tone, concerning a case of pederasty in an aging artist." [Quotation in Ellis Shoockman, Thomas Mann's Death in Venice: A Reference Guide (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 2001), 45.]

Visconti's film (available from The Criterion Collection) seems to have thrown critical squeamishness into overdrive. Many film critics expressed emotions ranging from discomfort to disdain regarding the interactions (distant and largely one-sided though they are—just as in the book) between Aschenbach and the adolescent source of his obsession, Tadzio (Björn Andrésen). Roger Ebert—in a fine piece of writing despite what I regard as critical misprision—decries the film for lacking the ambiguity and subtlety he discerns in the novella and claims that Visconti has reduced the narrative to a "straightforward story of homosexual love," making the film "vulgar and simplistic." The aspect of the Death in Venice that triggers Ebert's excoriation is the fact that Tadzio often returns Aschenbach's gaze, that "Visconti lays on the turns, looks, and smiles with such a heavy hand that the boy could almost be accused of hustling." (, 1 Jan 1971) Of course, Mann, in the novella, charts these same episodes—but the film concretizes these moments to the point of some critical embarrassment.

Insofar as the novella is narrated from Aschenbach's point of view, one can always chalk up these moments to fantasy rather than reality, whereas one tends to accept cinema as having a documentary quality to its scenes, to expect that it shows how things "really are" unless the moment is framed in such a way that belies that assumption. I'm not convinced this is the best way to understand Visconti's Death in Venice. The "reality" of many of the events are filtered through Aschenbach's awareness of that reality. We follow him throughout the film. We see what he sees and we are inflected (or, given the symbolic use of the infectious plague that besets Venice in the story, infected) by his manner of seeing.

Indeed, if the film can be said to be reductive, I would claim that it is reductive in the direction of the central concern of Mann's novella: the encounter with beauty through the act of seeing and the uncanny disruption of one's life that arises from that encounter. Part of what disturbs Aschenbach in his encounter with beauty has to do precisely with the pederastic element of the infatuation. The inappropriateness of his obsession reveals an aspect of beauty that is often disregarded or blatantly denied: that there is a kind of horror associated with beauty and that this horror arises, in part, from the fact that the beautiful object always looks back at the person who notices it. Beauty always involves the uncanny and terrifying reciprocity of the aesthetic gaze.

One of Drury Lane Theatre's many chandeliers (photo: K. Zarker)

Despite centuries of argument and discussion, the concept of beauty remains recalcitrant to our understanding. Indeed, the very notion of a concept of beauty strikes one as possibly dubious insofar as the beautiful thing seems to present itself always as a kind of conundrum, a puzzle to be solved. Whenever we encounter the beautiful, we renew our inquiry into what constitutes beauty. The old canard that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is both a recognition of the unsettled character of beauty and a means of turning one's back on the disturbingly unstable identity of a quality that we take as central to our sensory experience, and thus central to our purchase upon the world that surrounds us.

Immanuel Kant holds, in part, that beauty comforts us in the knowledge that we have some grasp upon the world, including aspects of that world (like wild nature) that seem to evade our conceptual apparatus. But even this last notion is placed into question. At least since Plato (and for figures ranging from Plotinus to Schiller to Hegel) the point of beauty is not to serve as a means of our accommodation to this world but rather as a bridge that connects us with another realm, a deeper reality that reveals truth but is not directly accessible to our senses. Beauty leads us beyond ourselves, to transgress our temporal and spatial limitations, to glimpse the "really real" that evades our grasp and can only be sensually signaled to us through this strange encounter with the unaccountable source of our yearning.

Kant, again, strikes me as a thinker who brilliantly reveals the tensions inherent in the concept of beauty. Our interest in beauty is grounded in subjectivity and yet seems to entail something beyond the merely subjective. We maintain a disinterested stance in relation to beauty (that is, we don't expect beauty to enrich us or feed us or serve any other direct, subjective need) and yet we are hardly indifferent to it. As Kant puts it in a fascinating note to his Critique of Judgement [Translated by J.H. Bernard (New York: Hafner Press, 1951)]: "A judgement upon an object of satisfaction may be quite disinterested, but yet very interesting, i.e., not based upon an interest, but bringing an interest with it; of this kind are all pure moral judgements" (§3, p.39).

The note provocatively adumbrates many of the points that Kant will address as his treatise progresses. While pure aesthetic judgment requires disinterestedness, we find our engagement with beauty gives rise to another kind of interest (one that doesn't serve an immediate need but that is of interest all the same). That interest involves another tension Kant mines from our encounter with the beautiful—it involves recognition of purposiveness without purpose. One of Kant's more poetic examples here is the beauty of the wildflower. Its beauty doesn't fulfill any function per se. but rather seems suited specifically to our sensory capacity. The world of beauty appears to have been made for our perceptual abilities. We cannot understand nature in its own right (Kant famously claims that we have no access to the noumenal realm, the realm of "things in-themselves") but beauty gives us some strange purchase upon the world that is not merely conceptual (hence the difficulty with the concept of beauty).

This non-conceptual grasp of the world is bound up in the formed aspect of beauty. That which is beautiful is well formed. And while we cannot provide a concept that merely explains beauty (or explains it away), we may grasp the perfection (that is, the completeness) of its form. Thus, beauty comforts by assuring us of some adequation between the phenomenal world (the world as it appears to us) and our ability to grasp it beyond the limitations of determinate concepts. It is one thing to say "that is a wildflower" (where the concept of "wildflower" determines what I take this particular thing to be) and another to say "that wildflower is beautiful." The latter involves another tension. It is both subjective (you can't prove to me I'm wrong about something being beautiful) and universal (my claim to something being beautiful surmounts the mere claim that I find it pleasing; on some level, I assume your assent). When I recognize beauty, I see the world as somehow suitable to me as a human being. Beauty, therefore, on the one hand, makes us at home in the phenomenal world.

But on the other hand, beauty indicates something beyond the phenomenal world and the realm of causal law. It indicates, in an indirect but compelling manner, the noumenal world and the realm of freedom. This is why Kant draws the comparison with pure moral judgment, which assesses right or wrong without taking into account whether or not I will benefit from the moral action considered (e.g., I assist the impoverished not because it enriches me, or even because it makes me feel good, I do so because it is morally right—even if it fails to even bring me the comfort of feeling better about myself). In taking a moral stance without consideration of benefit, I am maintaining a position of being disinterested, and yet, as my moral nature involves free choice (or else it would not properly be moral but rather another form of determinism), I take a great deal of interest in distinguishing right from wrong. Kant is not (despite misunderstandings of his famous categorical imperative) suggesting that moral law is evident. Our moral nature drives us toward a goal of perfecting that nature (and therefore, we can say our moral lives are teleological) but the end of that process (the point of perfection) is not only unclear but indeterminable. We have a drive toward a moral life and yet the goal is unattainable and not concretely determined. In this sense, our moral lives are teleological without a telos; they are end-directed without a clear vision of the ultimate end.

Björn Andrésen as Tadzio, Dirk Bogarde as Gustav von Aschenbach

My stance vis-à-vis beauty, according to Kant, and particularly the beauty of nature, operates in a similar fashion. A point of entry here is through Kant's insistence on beauty evincing a purposiveness without purpose. The lack of a purpose designates a lack of closure. Aesthetics is, in part, concerned with that open-endedness. It has teleological implications without the closure of a telos. No determinate concept is adequate to the astonishment induced by an encounter with beauty; we are left to acts of groping interpretation—interpretation that has no end-point but that changes and shifts as our relation to the beautiful object changes and shifts. The interpretation of beauty is a continual dance with the unknown and unknowable.

Michel Chaouli, in his penetrating study Thinking with Kant's Critique of Judgment (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2017), characterizes the Kantian stance regarding beauty as predicated upon an engagement with the world that draws one out of oneself: "I face a world whose meaning I fail to grasp with a fully developed line of thought, a failing that occasions in me an ecstatic pleasure" (105)—ecstatic pleasure, causing one to stand outside oneself. The world eludes our grasp; recognition of the beautiful (the aesthetic moment) involves stepping out of ourselves to meet that world in its purposiveness without purpose (necessity and freedom; the phenomenal and the noumenal). Aesthetics reminds us that we don't know (can't know) all, and yet pursuit of that unknown is integral to our being.

In this sense, beauty places an unreasonable (that is beyond everyday conceptual reason) demand upon us. This signals, to my mind, the alluring slippage in Kant's analysis of beauty. What appeared to make us feel at home in the world slips into the disturbing presence of the uncanny; what gave us purchase on the world and thus made us feel like masters of our domain slips to a displacement of the self insofar as the ecstatic is bound up in an alienation of the self from the self. I take pleasure in beauty in a two-fold and perhaps oxymoronic sense: on the one hand, owing to its tendency toward formal perfection, I feel that I understand the world, that I am (if not in charge) at least in control of my relation to that world; on the other hand, that perfection indicates a teleology (a drive toward completion) without a telos (a designated end) and therefore makes a moral demand upon me that pulls me out of myself, alienates me from myself. This call to change is evinced Rainer Maria Rilke's oft-repeated insistence that the artwork (the object of beauty) demands "You must change your life." I can take this to be a positive call to reform or I can take it to be a kind of evil inflicted on me that murders my old self in preference to the unknown and unknowable.

This dialectic tension was most immediately familiar to Thomas Mann through Friedrich Nietzsche's opposition of the Apollinian and Dionysian in art as set forth in his first treatise, The Birth of Tragedy (1872). The Apollinian is bound up in form, individuation (that is the autonomy of the individual), the promise of perfection, and the understanding. The Dionysian represents chaos, immersion in the crowd or in larger forces of existence, the insistence on constant change (without telos), and emotion. While Kant would not have used the image of the murder of the (old) self in the face of beauty, such a gesture is much more suitable to Nietzsche's rhetoric. Beauty for Nietzsche maintains a fascinating relationship to truth.

Early in his career (still under the direct influence of Arthur Schopenhauer), he saw beauty as the only means that one had to bear the suffering of the world; Nietzsche insisted that there was only an "aesthetic justification of existence" that redeemed the essentially cruel nature of the world. As his thought developed, Nietzsche came to believe that beauty served as a conduit for the disclosure of truth—that in this tension between the Apollinian and the Dionysian (between the formed and chaotic elements of beauty) we test ourselves to see how much of the truth of the world we can bear to experience. Beauty, therefore, brings the risk of too great an exposure to the truth of existence in all its fantastic cruelty, in all its lamentable suffering, in all its harsh indifference to our needs. The person who authentically experiences beauty acknowledges the hollow abyss of existence and responds affirmatively—despite the risk of despair, insanity, and the loss of the self (existential death). Beauty stares back at us and demands that we accept and acknowledge its terrible contradictions.

So, we return to Aschenbach in that salon with Tadzio. The manner in which Visconti frames the scene is revealing. Aschenbach, not fully absorbed in his paper, scans the room and notices the Polish family. His gaze grazes along the girls—all dressed in identically dreary garb—and their guardian. But when Aschenbach comes to Tadzio, the contrast is striking; the camera pauses, creating a portrait of the young boy in all his precocious, jaded ennui. Tadzio is a curiously alluring figure with his bright sailor suit and his distracted air. He exudes the kind of spoiled nature that allows a child to feel at a kind of royal remove from the world, a disengagement deriving from the fact that he is provided all his needs, wants, and whims—but a detachment that lends him a quality of having attained a kind of knowledge that he doesn't actually have (he couldn't communicate such knowledge to Aschenbach or anyone else) but to which he has some manner of corporeal connection. That is to say, Tadzio's body, in its sculptural beauty, reveals a truth that Tadzio embodies without being able to grasp it himself. Aschenbach is enthralled by a kind of surplus that Tadzio evinces, a revelatory power that gives Aschenbach, as the admirer, an insight into a truth that transcends the quotidian world, that escapes rational attempts to contain it conceptually.

Dirk Bogarde as Gustav von Aschenbach

Of course, this schematic relationship between Aschenbach and Tadzio echoes the ancient Greek tension between the lover and his beloved—as outlined in Plato's Symposium, for example. The lover is lacking something (all desire being predicated on a lack) and seeks it in the beloved. The beloved has something but knows not what it is. That which the lover lacks is not identical to what the beloved has—this is the essential source of tension in the love relationship—and yet both parties can't help but treat the relationship as a form of exchange, an exchange predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding.

The film articulates Aschenbach's lack in a rather heavy-handed manner that relies upon flashbacks to turgid conversations between Aschenbach and his ludicrously loquacious friend Alfred (Mark Burns). The conversations amount to a rather banal paraphrase of Nietzsche's Apollinian/Dionysian dialectic. The writing makes these exchanges execrable but at their heart is a potentially important philosophical/aesthetic concern. Their debates focus on the role of beauty and the composer's connection to beauty in the act of creating music. Aschenbach insists that aesthetic beauty derives from intellectual and spiritual discipline, that it is wholly of benefit to the world, and that the composer must strive, above all, for clarity of expression. Alfred, on the other hand, claims that beauty is purely sensual and external to the act of composition, that it always contains an element of evil, and that the artist (especially the composer) must recognize and take advantage of beauty's inherent ambiguity.

Now, to be clear, these scenes are laughably bad. They are an attempt to rework the far more successful philosophical moments in Mann (which also explore the Nietzschean tension but from the point of view of a writer, not a composer) but they fail miserably. Even my brief summary of their arguments is an improvement over the actual dialogue, which is hopelessly vague, puerile, and unconvincing. And yet, in a film that reduces Mann's philosophically driven novella to a series of exchanged glances (which is, I would argue, the film's strength, the source of its power, and what it offers that the novella simply cannot), these exchanges between Aschenbach the Apollinian and Alfred the Dionysian are essential to laying out what is at stake in those glances.

Having his Aschenbach be a Mahlerian composer should have worked to Visconti's advantage in elaborating on the Apollinian/Dionysian dialectic. After all, Nietzsche's introduction to this aesthetic (and eventually epistemological, ontological, and ethical) tension was The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music (1872). But, even more to the point, music embodies a fascinating tension between ambiguity and clarity, the interpretive and the given, the conceptual and the immediate. This tension involves the relationship in music between harmonic function and sonority as such. Sonority is clear, immediate, sensual, and given. When I hear any collection of notes, I hear it in the immediate sense. That sensuous sound in all its specificity is what matters at that moment. I might find it pleasurable or distasteful but that is a sensual and not an intellectual matter. But when I hear that sonority as a harmonic function (say a tonic, or a dominant, or any other functional chord—a chord that ought to go somewhere or ought to behave in some given manner) then I am not focused on the immediacy of the sonority but rather on its conceptual understanding, on its meaning within a larger system of tonal structure. Chords may always behave contrary to their supposed function, contrary to their ought. This is the underlying ambiguity of function. It may go otherwise. The same is not true of sonority. If I hear clearly, the sonority simply is what it is.

Now notice that there is a curious slippage here. In this rendering, sonority, in its clarity, ought to appeal to the Apollinian Aschenbach while in its connection to the sensuous and givenness ought to appeal to the Dionysian Alfred. On the other hand, function would appeal to Aschenbach in its intellectual basis while pleasing Alfred in its ambiguity. Such slippage need not disappoint us in our Nietzschean reading insofar as, at this stage of his career, Nietzsche saw the balance between and integration of the Apollinian and Dionysian to be the province of art and its proper relationship to life. Music is at once function-driven and sonority-driven and those two elements, while ultimately inseparable (although the relationship between them is quite malleable), are not the same. They involve different impulses (the sensual and the intellectual, clarity and ambiguity, the given and the conceptual) that cannot adequately function in isolation but depend on the inherent tensions within their oppositions. Music invites a kind of Dionysian immersion in its sonorous luxuriousness but demands an Apollinian distance in order to follow its structure and hear it as meaningful music at all. Too great a Dionysian proximity and the music becomes noise and the tactile impulsions of sound waves on the body; too great an Apollinian remove and one merely thinks the structure of music rather than experiencing it as a presencing phenomenon. In short, beauty (here beauty through music) requires a kind of Goldilocks zone—not too close, not too far away, finding the experiential space that is just right—and yet, in the strange power it wields over us, it constantly threatens to push us out of that zone, it demands that we come too close or remain too far away.

In his conversations with Alfred, Aschenbach reveals himself to be at too great a remove from beauty. His composerly persona insists on total control and a refusal to expose oneself to the harrowing encounter with beauty. His overriding concern for aesthetic control demonstrates a rigid adherence to the strictures of law (here in the guise of form). Everything is precisely where it belongs and thus communicates precisely what it means—all is signal and there is no excess noise. But if, as Kant holds, beauty provides a glimpse of true freedom outside the bounds of quotidian law and a glimpse of a realm that transcends our comprehension of the meaningful (so that beauty is somehow beyond law and beyond meaning), then the encounter with beauty necessarily figures as a shattering event for a man such as Aschenbach, a devotee of the orderly, the controlled, the meaningful; beauty threatens to become pure sensuous noise devoid of signal. This is precisely his downfall; he is simply too ill-prepared for coming face-to-face with the problem of beauty that Tadzio represents for him.

Perhaps many reviewers of the film were also rather ill-prepared insofar as it seems to have been the disturbing nature of the beautiful object staring back at us that critics such as Ebert found so troubling. We are accustomed to the notion that our aesthetic gaze is part of what constitutes the experience of beauty, but the fact that this gaze is returned strikes us as uncanny. The aesthetic object is to be viewed from the safe distance of Kantian disinterest; if the object returns our gaze, if it sees us in the act of seeing, we are denuded of that disinterest, we are rendered an object by the very thing we admired in its objectivity. The boy's glances can only be characterized as lascivious by one (such as Aschenbach) who feverishly hopes to read such intentions into them.

Tadzio realizes he has a certain power over Aschenbach, and he plays with that power just as he plays with the charm he holds over his mother and his governess, but there is no indication that he is aware of the possibly lurid nature of that power (that mixture of the salacious and the pure, the Dionysian and the Apollinian, with which Aschenbach approaches the object of his desire). But, to a large extent, it doesn't matter what the boy knows, Aschenbach recognizes in those glances the terrible power beauty has to crush its admirers in the act of devotion. The aesthetic turns its gaze upon us and reveals us in our small nudity; this is productive of shame. For all of the joy we get out of beauty it redounds upon us in the form of an awareness of a lack that resides within us, an inability to live up to the ideal of our desire: hence Aschenbach's ludicrous attempt to make himself appear younger and more beautiful in his own right through makeup and hair dye.

Visconti's accomplishment in this film is to boil down the story's concerns with beauty and the existential crises it inspires into concentrated moments of insight through the purely visual elements of the gaze and gesture. In one particularly striking scene, Aschenbach follows Tadzio as the boy heads out to the beach. Tadzio swings on the posts that hold up an elongated canopy. He is aware that a man follows him and he coyly cavorts before him. Aschenbach trails the boy a little too closely. At one point, he vaguely reaches out toward Tadzio—perhaps in a real attempt to touch him but more likely just to get that much closer. Tadzio proceeds on to the beach but Aschenbach makes a right turn and stumbles, as though intoxicated, before a row of beach tents. He clutches at his chest, seems bewildered, embarrassed. Far from the Kantian aesthetic mode of disinterest, Aschenbach is all too interested, all too taken with the object of his admiration. That interest puts him out of step with himself, disrupts his sense of who he is. But it also reveals a disturbing truth about the world and about what Aschenbach is; he sees who he is and he flinches. The encounter with beauty is shattering and we recognize that Aschenbach will never be able to put the pieces back together.

* * *

Criterion Collection has released a blu-ray edition of Visconti's masterpiece Death in Venice. It includes Luchino Visconti: Life as in a Novel, a 2008 documentary examining the director's career and featuring interviews with Visconti, Burt Lancaster, Marcello Mastroianni, and others; Alla ricerca di Tadzio (In Search of Tadzio), a 1970 short film by Visconti chronicling his search for a boy to play the role of the object of Aschenbach's longing; a 2006 interview with set designer Piero Tosi; a 1971 interview with Visconti; Visconti's Venice, a 1970 short documentary on the making of the film; an excerpt from a 1990 discussion of the music in Visconti's films featuring interviews with Dick Bogarde and Marisa Berenson.

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