Creative Emotional Alchemy of A priori Re-incarnation

Eyes, lakes of my simple passion to be reborn…

Stephane Mallarme

To redeem is to save, to save is to refine what is coarse, to give it “meaning”… to become refined is to become spiritualized… What we call “tact”, Sartre notes, “is connected with esprit de finesse.”… All of us witness to the profanation of our sacred particularities…

John Murray Cuddihy, “The Ordeal of Civility…”, Basic Bs, 1974, p. 70, 233, 235

A “prelude” to Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice”

Visconti is explaining to Dirk Bogarde his concept of what he thinks Thomas Mann meant.

This poster of “Death in Venice” expresses the very essence of Visconti’s idea of the film. Why Gustav and Tadzio are not looking at one another but at some abstract points of interest? Where are they looking at? The answer, according to surface semantic structure of the film, is – at each other, of course. But why this poster, contrary to numerous others, doesn’t show what is so obvious? – Because it expresses the psychological composition of Gustav-Tadzio’s mutual attraction, not narrates this attraction – while looking at one another they perceive that they both are located in different psychological perspectives, that there is no point of emotional or situational coincidence in their mutuality. There is no psychological area about which it can be said that they want from one another the same/similar thing. What stands between them instead is an enigma that each tries to grasp, mystery of their interest for one another.

Gustav von Aschenbach on his trip to Venice and during his experiences there met three omens. Two refer to the nature of his attraction to the boy he cross path with by chance in Venice and one (the situation with the gondolier) – to the tormenting ordeal this attraction creates for Gustav. This and the following shot depict the first omen predicting Gustav-Tadzio’s encounter.

On the ship approaching Venice Gustav is bugged by a “vulgar old homosexual” who transparently hints at composer’s coming torments in a reduced (for Gustav’s taste – plebeian and not applicable to him) terms. The very understanding of this clownish figure of what is waiting for Gustav in Venice personifies the American mass cultural clichés about homosexuality.

Gaze of Tadzio (ten shots)

Tadzio (who is not as versed in sexological truisms as American adolescents today) has noticed the strange gaze of the unknown man.

Mild curiosity in Tadzio becomes stronger – he is ready to challenge the stranger to say or explain something.

“Why is it so difficult sometimes for the grownups to open up and reveal what they are up to?” In this shot we see the one who is a prisoner of life, and the other who is already “out of existential focus”.

“He is a coward, this shy fellow in glasses.” In this way the unconditional life opened to the world challenges experience and talent stumbled in inner contradictions.

”What is behind this old man’s inability to overcome what’s tormenting him and be frank, whatever it is? Is it life itself that makes people so weak?”

“Something is wrong if it is so difficult to be sincere in this world.”

Tadzio tries to “lure” the famous musician into sincerity.

”No, it looks that the trick with music cannot breach the gap between human beings.”

This and next still represent the imaginary scene Gustav replays in his mind (about meeting Tadzio with blessing of his mother) in which he wants to save the boy and his family from spreading pestilence.

We see in Tadzio’s demanding gaze his desperate attempt to make the world to open its secrets whatever they are. He wants world to talk like rain and rivers and like ocean, but world is silent. “Why world can talk only through music or moods and actions, but not with human speech?”

In his long and difficult life Gustav tried to console himself with easy love named sex. He tried to buy a sexual consolation.

But in Aschenbach’s case separation of love and sex didn’t work. For him sex is a box that he can open only with love. He is an extraordinary composer (Visconti models him on Gustav Mahler), and for him only love can be the existential equivalent of music and creative position towards the world.

Gustav Aschenbach’s gaze (five shots)

Gustav’s first, dumbfounded but aloof gaze at Tadzio

Gustav implies that Tadzio is “the world in general” – that he will respond to Gustav’s amorous inspiration as the world usually responds to his creative dedication with miraculous gift of virtuoso combined sounds. But Tadzio is not “the world”, he is human being and he is young. He is entitled to hear the human truths – he wants to understand life better, while Gustav represents in the film the traditional high culture with its fatal limitation of being de-existentialized, metaphysically oriented. In this still his gaze at Tadzio (so different from Tadzio’s gazes at him who expects just human answer) is demanding as if a metaphysical explanation as to why Gustav is so overwhelmed. But the boy is not capable of providing answers, especially answers which like questions are as big as the world. It is the role of the adult to offer explanations.

We see that Gustav is obviously embarrassed by his own understanding that his attraction to the Polish boy means love. But does this love include sexual yearning as it was immediately claimed in pop-reaction on the film in US?

Separation from Tadzio was for Gustav separation from music, creativity, the world and life. It took him some time to grasp the symbolic role Tadzio plays not only in his life but in his death. But even then Gustav treats him not as a human being but as a focus of his projected needs. Of course, these needs are not consumerist, like in so many people today who live by using others for their purposes. But with all admirable sublimity of Gustav’s emotional needs he perceives Tadzio only in relation to his centrality.

The only time we see Gustav relaxed and joyful – a normal human being, when he returns to Venice and again see the boy on the beach. The very expressiveness of his salute we witness in this shot, was possible only because nobody including Tadzio could see it.

Gustav is able to write music again only because Tadzio is nearby.

Tadzio can open for Gustav the very death as re-incarnation. How his intuition got what Gustav needed and himself didn’t understand? May be, by being young and not too music-sensitive he has rare capability to listen to Gustav’s silence, to his inability to explain (to confess). It is the same talent that made him to look at Gustav with expectation. May be, Tadzio is the existential equivalent of Gustav-the great composer whose gift of listening to the world is magically able to transform world’s silence into his incredible music? Tadzio-Gustav, Gustav-Tadzio. Tadzio’s psychological identification with Gustav’s silence preceded Gustav’s reincarnation into Tadzio whose classical beauty is a precondition but not the essence of Gustav’s immortality. Love according to Gustav and Tadzio is a spiritual ordeal, not a “happiness” of philistines.

The second omen referring to the “dishonorable” nature of Gustav’s attention to Tadzio, is delivered by the clownish singer in the restaurant of hotel where Gustav and Tadzio’s family stayed in Venice. This incredible performer masterfully represented in his number “the sexual nature” of Gustav’s attachment to the boy according to a “demythologized” knowledge of human sexuality and a modern “materialistic” view of life.

The hotel manager is afraid that “too frank” performance will bother the customers. But because the creative impertinence of the performer we, viewers of the film, are privileged to witness his number to the end.

We see here the moment when a singer addresses the inability of people with “pretentious elegance” to satisfy their real desires.

The performance of this incredible artist includes his parody on “these rich and pretentious” people (who because of their bloated self-image are unable to understand the real nature of their desires). His folk-art is motivated by political gesture of laughing at the uptight guests of the hotel. But by using this parody on “aristocracy” Visconti expresses his criticism of the “demythologized” approach towards human being when scientist together with water of human self-aggrandizement, throws away the baby of genuine psychological sophistication.

Why Gustav is dressed and made-up in such an absurdly grotesque manner? – Because he is psychologically trapped between life and death, between eroticism and solemnity, between circus of human life and glorious mysteries of the world. Before death everybody is child-like. At the end of the film eroticism (or in the American mass-commercial interpretation – sexual desire), is represented by Visconti as Gustav’s delirious attempt to avoid mortality by the price of transforming himself into a wax figure.

Finally, Gustav understands that erotic accents in his attraction to Tadzio is a compulsive attempt to avoid destiny, to transform death into an emotional orgasm, the inability to grasp that death is not orgasmic.

The sexual misinterpretation of Gustav’s attraction to Tadzio is represented in the film’s finale by the episode of wrestling between Tadzio and his friend. Gustav dies while wishing to save the boy from sexual/aggressive decimation of disinterested love.

The last sighs of a worshiper and creator of great art who is separating from the world’s sublime vitality


“Death in Venice” is a film about human emotions rather than about drives or desires. It is a poetic description how affects, these impulsive emotional links, become harmonious emotional combinations and how the last ones in its turn become a design of sublime feelings. It is a film about living/dying of a person of rare sublimity of character, about how human feelings are transformed into music. It is from music of feelings the sublime music like Mahler’s is born. Visconti’s film is a visual equivalent of musical score, mediation (in visual images) between emotions and music. Visconti made DV with a historico-cultural reference to Thomas Mann and Gustav Mahler and fills it with meditations and contemplations about art and beauty as philosophical and experiential phenomena. It is a film about life of sensitivity for metaphorical associations and substitutions.

In time when DV was released in US (in mid-70s), American mass-cultural project of liberating de-sublimation in all the areas was in a process of being deployed in full power. Mass cultural de-sublimation in its psychological aspect was mixed with the “pragmatic” streak in the American cultural tradition (which itself became reduces to “this-is-bull-that-is-bull” brave posture and rants about the “educated snobbery”. The result was a psychological short circuit between simplified (instrumental) ideas of love and friendship and attention to “material” aspects of life (be it orientation on profit/career or “sexual love”). Young people were culturally abandoned because the older generations were either in business, technology, applied sciences and entertainment or like many American specialists in arts, in one-dimensional (technical) analysis of works of art that either avoided art’s existential aspect or was reducing it to approved clichés.

Transformation of culture into mass culture and technicalization of humanistic education are going together because both are facets of commercialization of cultural discourse. Commercialization of communication is reduction of the subtle connections between perceived realities to their obvious, flashy and easily sensationalizable ones. That’s how relationships between people of the same sex (in patriarchal tradition between men) that is the basis of social life and synonym of social relations – in mass-cultural thinking became sensationalized into carrying the connotation of directly homosexual needs. Shining bridges were established between human life and homosexual desire (stimulating intense, either positive/euphoric or negative/phobic reactions in the wider public), and incredible semantic and psychological mess was created with mechanical association between homoerotic feelings (which are very often an innocent part of friendship) and homosexual desires.

Commercialization of the discourse with its innocently exaggerated analogies created a specific kind of thinking that practices intriguing leaps of associations, dazzling metaphors and provoking and shocking albeit shallow ideas. Visconti’s “Death in Venice” became an exemplary victim of this appealing to the public/trying to get attention mass-cultural style of thinking/perception. What in Mann’s prose, Mahler’s music and in Visconti’s film was part of philosophical argument, an example of how reality defeats human intellectual constructions, the discovery of how creative perception of reality overrides dogmatism and the limits of human experience, how death of a creative person can be a creative power – in mass-cultural perception became an illustration of how an old and sick composer falls in love with a young boy and is tormented by his homosexual yearnings.

Of course, Gustav von Aschenbach has fell in love with Tadzio – the intelligent beauty of the boy (the beauty of his intelligent curiosity?) and Gustav’s nearing death (making him unconsciously look for meaningful transition from life to death) made him susceptible to spiritual alchemy of emotions. But did Gustav really fall in love? And what it means to fall in love if you are Gustav von Aschenbach and it is Tadzio whom you love? Yes, we see that Gustav is attracted to Tadzio too passionately and that he is too embarrassed by it as if he himself knew very well that his passion is not very “platonic”. But what does it prove? Physical attraction to somebody is not necessary sexual by its nature and homoerotic feelings are not identical with homosexual desire. The wall between the two is not impenetrable, but the sides of this wall are not identical. Yes, Aschenbach is attracted to Tadzio but this attraction is to his beautiful physicality that is the mythological abode for the dying body of a creative soul that cannot automatically surrender the spiritual value of physical life like the ordinary believers do the fallen physical world for the sake of the spiritual heaven. Gustav (smashed by the controversy of his feelings) was hiding in the anonymity of his admiration. His desperate need to be close to Tadzio is explained by his desire to hang on to life and simultaneously it means his farewell to life, the tormenting, life-asserting death-acceptance with the help of Tadzio’s existence in the world.

All these nuances which are so important for a life of existential spirituality (that is a vital part of our Western cultural tradition) were dropped by the mass-mind encountering Visconti’s film. Most people (including many critics) understood the film as a story about a homosexual coming out of the closet. But Visconti in advance inserts into the film this vulgarized interpretation of Gustav Aschenbach’s predicament. He coded the tendency of mixing homoeroticism and homosexuality into the plot through two personages (an unpleasant episodic character on the boat in the beginning of the film who tries to insinuate that Aschenbach carries “ambiguous” sexual intentions, and the clownish pantomime artist at the hotel in Venice, who “deconstructs” a “spiritual air” of Aschenbach’s personality by “demonstrating” in his performance that under spiritual facade Gustav hides sexual desires for Tadzio). To emphasize the sublimated nature of Gustav’s erotic sensitivity, Visconti uses at least one psychologically very loaded symbolic action (Tadzio’s wrestling with another boy that fills Gustav with horror), and one symbolic event (the semantic motif of pestilence as a contamination of spiritual purity of Aschenbach’s posture vis-à-vis the world including his attraction to Tadzio).

The episodic “soothsayer” on the ship and clownish pantomime artist (with an exceptional although “low breed” performance) personify the pop-cultural misinterpretation of Aschenbach’s homoerotic agony, the wrestling episode is a symbolic representation of the sexual encroachment on the sacredness of Aschenbach’s sublime perception of Tadzio’s existence, and the motif of pestilence is a symbolic image of vulgar powers of this world trying to make Gustav to confuse his call for spiritual creativity amidst a life with violence of a purely sexual desire.

Mimic contact between Aschenbach and Tadzio which the film is “operationally” based on, is underlining the rapport between their intelligence – Gustav wants to understand his homoerotic desire (covering his unconscious alchemical emotional maneuvers of searching for a priori re-incarnation), while Tadzio – what is this strange old man and a famous composer feels towards him and why. Their cognitive mutuality realizes itself in agreement with the theory of the French philosopher of psychoanalysis Jacques Laplanche about the enigmatic element in the behavior of adults which intrigues children but which they will understand only much later (when they themselves will grow up). The cognitive rapport between Gustav and Tadzio makes the boy a psychological inheritor of the dying composer. Their silent mutual identification opens for Gustav death as life and for Tadzio life as otherness. Intergenerational unity of human intelligence makes Gustav to discover the future as the past, and Tadzio – present as the future. The recognition of the effectiveness of their mutual pedagogy is one of the valuable achievements of Visconti’s film. Their encounter will help Tadzio to live with nobility and helps Gustav to die with it.

The film is a rare visual incarnation of serious music. Another examples are Alain Corneau’s “All the Mornings of the World” (1991) and Claude Miller’s “The Accompanist” (1992).

In the times when it’s almost impossible to see in the movies human emotions bonded with a mind of psychological wholeness (only technical intelligence can be connected with them – “the best way to survive or to make fun is…”), Visconti’s film shows in detailed manner the influence of disinterested human intelligence on characters’ emotions. “Death in Venice” is a potent alternative to mass cultural emotional thesaurus and mass society’s technical intelligence.

While totalitarianism is machoistic and belligerent, democracy is erotic and homoerotic. And when homoeroticism is “sublimated”/de-sublimated/impersonalized into a money-philia and profit- or consumption-obsession, only machoism is left for the realm of social and international relations. Visconti in DV has extended Thomas Mann and Gustav Mahler’s cultural emanations for two generations. Will today’s culture be able to extend Visconti’s art into the future?

Scandalous “interpretation” of Gustav-Tadzio relationships

Posted on Jan 3, 2015 –   “Death in Venice” (1971) by Luchino Visconti  by Acting-Out Politics