photo & text by nacrowe
i first read THOMAS MANN's novella DEATH IN VENICE (VERLAG, 1912) for a comparative literature class in college and i was immediately taken with how it portrayed the PERFORMATIVE NATURE OF GENDER. the class itself was titled "Literature of Masculinity" and was very much about viewing male characters with an eye towards the prescriptions of NORMATIVE CULTURE they were inhabiting. probably the most interesting class i took in undergrad.
DEATH IN VENICE concerns itself with an author named GUSTAV VON ASCHENBACH, reportedly a nod to GUSTAV MAHLER, who has writer's block on a trip to VENICE and becomes obsessed with a young boy he sees at a beachside resort at a distance. what makes the story interesting, which on itself is more than creepy (and apparently an extrapolation of a similar holiday obsession of MANN himself), is how MANN portrays ASCHENBACH's behavior.
much like other beach goers, the past-his-prime writer has gone through a series of rituals with regard to makeup to present himself (in his mind) as being more youthful. the reality is that he is a grotesque caricature of such and the makeup administered fails to cover up the ill effects of cholera that will eventually take his life.
in essence we are all guilty of wearing a mask to better fit in with society and placate a false image of ourselves. usually this type of behavior is projected onto woman, but MANN shows how men are just as susceptible to such pressures. we all unyieldingly perform a MASCULINITY that is sanctioned by the precepts of our surrounding NORMATIVE CULTURE. and it is a PERFORMANCE.
there is also a strong sense of VOYEURISM throughout this narrative. it is never clear if the young aristocratic POLISH boy named TADZIO ever actually notices ASCHENBACH, or if the doomed author is just projecting momentarily glances as being more than such. as an audience we will never know, as we are too voyeurs into this charade. much like the ALFRED HITCHCOCK film REAR WINDOW (PARAMOUNT, 1954) showcases an ongoing melodrama interpreted by paraplegic sitting in wheelchair watching his neighbors from a fixed perspective, which mirrors that of the movie audience, we as readers are similarly both engaged and held at a distance from the action in DEATH IN VENICE. much like the TRANSFORMATIVE NATURE OF MAKEUP, there is also a TRANSFORMATIVE NATURE IN THE WRITTEN WORD. language both engages and holds us at bay from reality.
living abroad for so many years, i was always aware of how men carried themselves and how they attempted to project a sense of MASCULINITY through their appearance, dress and demeanor. its all culturally prescribed and reading DEATH IN VENICE in college made me aware of such. it has been immensely useful in that sense.
it also made witnessing hyper-aggressive forms (like in KUWAIT, ALBANIA or even STATEN ISLAND) seem that much more like EMASCULATED reactions to a deeply felt sense of MASCULINE FRAILTY. their MASCULINITY is caught up in warped projections of DOMINANCE and CONTROL, which in today's complicated world has left them with just FEAR and VIOLENCE. MANN made such transparent for me, which is the real gift of this narrative for me.
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