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Penny, W. (2021). An Antique Mirror: (De)constructed Romantic Desire and the Aesthetics of Transgression in Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice. IJP Open, 8:4.

(2021). IJP Open, 8:4

An Antique Mirror: (De)constructed Romantic Desire and the Aesthetics of Transgression in Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice

William Penny

Thomas Mann’s 'Death in Venice' (1912) features a character sustained by a metanarrative meant to rejuvenate his waning artistic powers. Initiated by a chance encounter with a stranger in a Munich cemetery, Gustave von Aschenbach’s aesthetic ambitions follow a line of travestied versions of beauty toward the idealized form he discovers in the Polish youth Tadzio. Yet the boy’s ultimate portrayal as embedded gestalt and refracting lens through which Aschenbach is confronted by his own reduced subjectivity opens the tale to a variety of psychoanalytic interpretations, including ones drawing on Lacanian mirror theory. The aesthetic ideals Aschenbach reveres become the counterpoint for such psychological nuancing in the story and re-cast his experiences as traumas which in turn impinge upon and finally undermine the “grand narratives” – aesthetic, classical, and otherwise – the artist relies on. It is an intricate play of psychodynamics in which Venice is revealed as deteriorated theatrical backdrop rather than hoped-for palliative, further highlighting the disconnect between reality and fantasy in Mann’s tale.

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