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literature

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Mann, Thomas (1875-1955)  
 
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Death in Venice

In Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice, 1912), the famous author Gustav Aschenbach has kept his life under tight control. On a trip to Venice, he drops those reins and unleashes emotions that eventually overpower him. The immediate catalyst is a beautiful Polish boy of fourteen. Aschenbach spies him with his sisters and governess at the hotel they share and is enraptured by the blond youth's beauty, which reminds him of a masterpiece of Greek sculpture.

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He learns the boy's name--Tadzio--but never speaks to him. Instead, he watches him play on the beach or spend time with his family at meals or on strolls through the city. A cholera epidemic strikes Venice. Aschenbach remains to be near his beloved, even though he is fully aware of the danger of this fatal disease.

The reserved, restrained German author all but disappears in the passion he develops for this youth. He writes only a few pages, he puts on makeup and colorful clothing to appear younger than his years; finally, he falls ill and dies while watching Tadzio who seems to beckon him "into an immensity of richest expectation."

Mann's own interests and experiences clearly inspired and shaped the novella. In 1911, Thomas Mann vacationed in Venice and became very attracted to a fourteen-year-old Polish boy whom he saw. Like Aschenbach, Mann never met the boy.

Thomas Mann's diaries and letters, along with several essays and prose works, provide evidence of the author's erotic attraction to his own sex, particularly to handsome young men. Of particular interest to literary historians have been the relationships he formed with Paul Ehrenburg (which lasted from approximately 1899 to 1903) and with Klaus Heuser (which began in 1927 when Heuser was sixteen and which lasted for several years).

Such friendships and the passages Mann devoted to this topic both in fiction and nonfiction works provide conclusive proof that the author did indeed experience--and value--homosexual feelings. Unfortunately, many critics over the years chose to deny this fact. The publication of Mann's diaries over the past decades has made further such denials impossible.

Tonio Kröger

In the story Tonio Kröger (1903), Mann uses the homoerotic feelings that the title character has as a boy for his friend Hans Hansen to indicate that Tonio, from childhood on, is separated from normal, bourgeois life. Homoeroticism becomes a metaphor for difference, for Außenseitertum (being an outsider). He yearns to belong to those "blond and blue-eyed, the brightly living, the happy, those worthy of love, the ordinary people."

But to join them he would have to relinquish his identity as an artist. And crucial to that identity is the position outside their realm of everyday existence, the place from which the artist creates, a place that borders on the homoerotic.

The Example of August von Platen

In the division between art and bourgeois life, Mann found a forebear in the nineteenth-century poet August von Platen. Platen's poems and diaries revealed his homosexuality, which had even become the basis of a famous literary feud when Heinrich Heine, whose literary reputation has since eclipsed that of Platen, tried to disparage the man and his work as being unworthy of attention, much less greatness, due to Platen's sexual nature.

In his essay "Über Platen" ("About Platen," 1926), Mann separates the poet's life from his literary creations. Platen, Mann felt, channeled his sexual desires into his art. The repression he exercised in his bourgeois life provided him with the inspiration necessary to create poetry although even Mann admits that Platen may have bestowed some sensual love on "unworthy boys."

Mann's Affinity with Walt Whitman

It should also be noted that Mann described his affinity with another nineteenth-century poet, the American Walt Whitman. In his speech "Von deutscher Republik" ("On the German Republic," 1922), Mann called on Whitman's vision of democracy as an ideal that Germany might pursue. In the process, he did not want to allow conservative German forces to usurp the "spiritual love of comrades" for their own nationalist purposes.

He spoke of "the queerly sympathetic response one feels upon touching with one's own hand the naked flesh of the body," wanting to reclaim that emotion in building the first German republic that was only then being born. But Mann distanced himself from embracing that flesh too openly in his essay about marriage a few years later.

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