Because we brought up the 1971 film adaptation of Death in Venice I thought I’d post a few related bits here. First is the film’s official trailer:
Next is the brief “making of” documentary:
Third is a very odd set of clips from the film, all bits involving lascivious/coquettish glances exchanged with Tadzio. SPOILER: It includes the death scene. Note that Visconti’s Aschenbach even looks a little like the person in Kefa’s post below. Ouch.
A contemporary review of the film had this to say about Visconti’s adaptation:
In the hands of Luchino Visconti, Aschenbach is instead the “weak and silly fool” for whom Mann’s Aschenbach showed little sympathy in his ironically titled novel The Abject. Where Mann’s Aschenbach approached tragic dimensions as an artist larger than life whose fall presaged the fall of his epoch, Visconti’s is a repressed, priggish gentleman whose infatuation with an exquisitely lovely adolescent boy reflects more ignominy than irony. Far from Mann’s distinguished author, he is a whining, whimpering man in need of smelling salts.
I’ve just found an interesting article on Ibsen, and if you are interested in knowing a little more about the general opinion about him, then it is definitely worth reading it. You’re going to find references to the gender issue he deals with in some of his works.
“In my review of Raison’s production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, I wrote that Pastor Manders’s “homilies about marital fidelity” produced “derisory laughter”, a response the director believes the playwright intended. In Norway, he said, they stage Ibsen more as domestic comedy than the weighty drama we assume here.”
Thomas Mann’s protagonist, Aschenbach, is a complex character with an obsessive, artistic nature. Aschenbach has a clearly defined view of beauty and his concept is fully represented by the beauty of the boy, Tadzio:
“It was the face of Eros, with the yellow gaze of Parian marble, with delicate and serious brows, the temples and ears richly and rectangularly framed by soft, dusky curls.” (25)
There is an infatuation with Tadzio, with his appearance comparable to flawless marble and the Greek god of love. Initially, the descriptions of Tadzio looks seem to be as an art critic assessing a masterpiece; however it quickly develops into an obsession for Aschenbach. This obsession is highlighted when he claims he was glad to return to Venice, after nearly moving on, because he could watch the boy more. As well as in the quote, when talking about Tadzio, the narrator/thoughts of Aschenbach’s mind cite Greek gods to shed light on emotions “the smile of Narcissus” (43), a beautiful youth condemned by the Greek gods for falling in love with his own reflection.
Aschenbach’s lengthy ruminations on beauty and its relation to how it relates to art, age, spirituality and sexuality frames, particularly, the second half of Death in Venice. He is aroused from his critical and disinterested characterisations of fellow tourists by a sighting of Tadzio, a “beautiful” young Polish boy on whom he soon becomes transfixed. Tadzio is young, feminine looking (“beautiful”) and saliently, free in action and in dress, especially when compared with his well-groomed and constantly monitored sisters. Aschenbach sees a path to divine writing in the boy’s beautiful aesthetic,
“He wanted to work here in the presence of Tadzio, to use the boy’s physical frame as the model for his writing, to let his style follow the lines of that body that seemed to him divine, to carry his beauty into the realm of intellect as once the eagle carried the Trojan shepherd into the ethereal heavens.” (39)
Aschenbach’s transformation comes from his feeling of “a need to restore and revive his body” (58). The language regarding his old appearance is very negative: “he confronted the tortured gaze of his image in the mirror” (58). Seeing such beauty in youth, Aschenbach now feels he must emulate youthfulness and has his hair and complexion altered; as mentioned, this is similar to the man he criticised before who he considered a “bizarre distortion” (15, aka a Beast). Interestingly, the barber says, “Will you allow me to give you back what is rightfully yours?” (58) This directly relates to Aschenbach’s previous questioning of the impersonators right to dress and socialise in a ‘youthful’ manner.
Aschenbach’s attraction to the boy turns out to be fatal however. The trajectory of his sickness begins as he arrives in Venice and thus sees the boy, then immediately following his profession of love for the boy, the notion of a plague-like disease is first mentioned and then finally as the boy seems to officially invite Aschenbach’s affection, the “lonely traveller” dies.
Our discussions of Ibsen’s use of congenital syphilis in Ghosts raises the specter of the absent father, whose sexual excesses have literally infected his family. Unlike his earlier play A Doll’s House, this play’s father figure is off stage throughout. He’s already dead before the play starts, so we’re living with his legacy, figured as inheritance, in monetary terms, in public reputation, and in physical and moral health. The critic Jørgen Lorentzen, writing in general about representations of fatherhood in Ibsen plays, begins his study with a set of questions that might guide our discussion on this topic. “I can hardly think of a more pervasive motif in Ibsen’s works than fatherhood,” he writes, though he acknowledges that we more often focus on Ibsen’s famous female protagonists, such as Nora (in A Doll’s House) or Mrs. Alving.
However, fatherhood is not what most of us associate with Ibsen’s dramas. Most of us think of women who fight for the right to a life of freedom or heroic men who become embroiled in great moral battles related to truth, freedom, power, suppression, and bourgeois double standards of morality. The reason for this is rather obvious. Ibsen’s dramas do not explicitly deal with fatherhood. It is not the relationship between fathers and their children that comprise the dramatic plot. Fatherhood lies in the background, ahead of the drama and underlying the dramatic interactions and scenes. Fatherhood is pervasive, yet kept discreetly in the background. This makes it even more fascinating to study. What is it that leads Ibsen to dramatize so consistently the relationship between father and child without fully developing it as a theme? In what ways are issues of fatherhood part of the realistic discourse on truth, freedom, and other issues under discussion?
Later in the piece he makes plain his interest in Ibsen’s fathers and not just male/female relations:
Quite simply, Ibsen wanted to explore the dramatic workings of the family … specifically the relationship between mother, father, and child—not just between the woman and man or the relationship between the adults. The children occupy a deliberate and central place in both plays, with an emphasis on how children are wounded to their core in the bourgeois family drama.
If you’re interested, you can find the rest of Lorentzen’s piece here. For now I’m willing just to entertain these issues as we continue our discussions this week.
Image: David Claudon, 1/2-inch scale model of the set of Ghosts (c. 1967).
The corruption from Oedipus Rex and Arthur Mervyn follows us to Ibsen’s Ghosts…
The Alving household is built on corruption and lies. These constituents do not simply subside and die with Captain Alving. Instead, they lead to the appearance of ghosts who inhabit the house and prevent the past from being forgotten. Therefore the ghosts are a symbol of punishment for the overflow of corruption, which is portrayed in Captain Alving’s iniquitous behavior of philandering and drinking and in Helene’s buildup of lies as she tries to protect her son from his dad’s wickedness and to maintain her family’s decent reputation. Helene’s corruption is also shown through her investment in building an Orphanage with all of her husband’s money, which is deceiving since one might think it is an act of altruism when in fact her sole motive was to protect her son from his father’s money.
According to Helene, the whole country of Norway is filled with ghosts since ghosts reside within the sinners and the sinners constitute the whole country.
“I’m inclined to think that we are all ghosts, Pastor Manders, every one of us. It’s not just what we inherit from our mothers and fathers that haunt us. It’s all kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs, and things like that. It’s not that they actually live on in us; they are simply lodged there, and we cannot get rid of them.” (Ibsen, II pp.126)
One of the ghosts’ ways of punishment is by taking the form of an inherited disease. Apparently, Oswald suffered from constant headaches as a child. When combining all the symptoms of Oswald’s disease, such as neck stiffness, disorientation, and temporary paralysis, it was found that his most probable disease is congenital neurosyphilis, especially since in the 19th century, during the time the play was written, syphilis had become widespread. Oswald, according to “one of the leading doctors” in Paris, is “vermoulu” since birth.
“The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children.” (Ibsen, pp.138)
Oswald inherits syphilis from his father as he bears the consequences of the latter’s wicked behavior in the past. This situation is parallel to Oedipus’s inevitable fate of killing his father and coupling with his mother as he also has to suffer from his parents’ corruption.
In addition, the ghosts of the story contribute to the gloomy setting of the play. Oswald despises Norway since it is always dark and there is incessant rain. He also mentions that he does not remember ever seeing the sun there, whereas in Paris, away from his family’s corruption, it is always sunny. After the last memory of Captain Alving, the Orphanage, is burnt to the ground and Helene discloses her husband’s true identity to Oswald, the sun finally begins to rise and the weather clears. By then, however, “Oswald shrinks in his chair [and] all his muscles go flaccid”. His last request is to be given the sun. He repeats, over and over:
“The sun… the sun…” (Ibsen pp.163,164)
By the time the Alving household becomes free of corruption and lies, it is too late…
I felt there was a neat connection between some of the poems found here and the Second Part to Arthur Mervyn, (shades of Arthur Mervyn and his being shot)
“Doctors raving and disputing, death’s pale army still recruiting–
What a pother
One with t’other!
Some a-writing, some a-shooting.”
– Philip Freneau Philadelphia, 1793
however what is more revealing are the discrepancies between Arthur Mervyn and some of these works that illustrate a more intense scene of chaos and despair than in Arthur Mervyn where often plague takes a back seat to character conflict.
Hot, dry winds forever blowing,
Dead men to the grave-yards going:
Oh! what plagues—there is no knowing!
– Philip Freneau Philadelphia, 1793
Also, with an eye to the medical aspect of the plague and the passage where Arthur journeys to Baltimore, it is interesting to note the actual symptoms of yellow fever which include “brain dysfunction, including delirium, seizures and coma” but also that there are two distinct stages of the disease in between which there is a brief respite where all the symptoms all but disappear, a bizarre ‘eye of the storm’, if you like.
It outlines some of the beliefs surrounding the disease at the time, for example Benjamin Rush thought that the origin of the disease was a pile of rotting coffee beans and that Blacks were immune to yellow fever… neither of these are true.
As you’re wrapping up the second volume of Arthur Mervyn this week, I want you to mull over a couple paragraphs from Norman Grabo’s early and influential book The Coincidental Art of Charles Brockden Brown (1981). In his chapter on Mervyn he notes that
the whole second part … turns on [Mervyn’s] relationship with women — Mrs. Wentworth, Mrs. Althorpe, Mrs. Villars, Mrs. Fielding, Clemenza Lodi, Miss Carlton, Eliza and Susan, Fanny and Mrs. Maurice, and Mrs. Watson. Stevens the authority figure has effectively disappeared from the foreground in this part, and the extent of his absence is thrown into significant relief when we remember who most strikingly occupied our attention in the first part — Stevens, Wortley, Wallace, Watson, Welbeck, Medlicote, Thetford, and Estwick. We realize that Brown, intentionally or not, has given us Arthur in two kinds of education: the first into the possibilities of fatherhood, the second into the possibilities of mothers and wives. Part one is a book of masculine cunning, deceit, and sickness; part two the exposure to forces of healing and wholeness. Sons and lovers? Exactly. (116-17)
What do you make of Grabo’s summary? He follows up later in the chapter by citing a few paragraphs from Brown’s essay “Walstein’s School of History,” which includes what seems to be an early outline of Arthur Mervyn‘s plot, with a few significant variations. (It’s included in full in the volume we’re reading.) These are the key paragraphs for Grabo, taken from what he and many other critics take to be one of Brown’s key statements of his theory of fiction:
The relations in which men, unendowed with political authority, stand to each other are numerous. An extensive source of these relations, is property. No topic can engage the attention of man more momentous than this. Opinions, relative to property, are the immediate source of nearly all the happiness and misery that exists among mankind. If men were guided by justice in the acquisition and disbursement, the brood of private and public evils would be extinguished.
Next to property the most extensive source of our relations is sex. On the circumstances which produce, and the principles which regulate the union between the sexes, happiness greatly depends. The conduct to be pursued by a virtuous man in those situations which arise from sex, it was thought useful to display. (337)
Can we talk these issues through this week? Is this an anticipation of Jane Austen’s famous opening to Pride and Prejudice?
IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
[Illustration: Charles Brockden Brown, attributed to Ellen Sharples, after James Sharples Senior, circa 1810. I always imagine Arthur Mervyn as looking a little like this.]