One thing that makes reading Thomas Mann such a toilsome joy is the depth of allusion behind his prose, the resonance that stretches from Antiquity to Mann’s own contemporaries. Dürer and Perotinus in Doktor Faustus, say, or Shakespeare in Tonio Kröger and Homer in Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice)–a thousand references dropped so easily, seemingly casually, demanding that the reader hunt them down and fit them into the larger story of Mann’s opus. They must be hunted down, too, because Mann didn’t write anything accidentally. His allusions always have some pressing import, afford some flash of insight, some backstory that draws out meaning and sets the whole plot of the book in another light.
And so one of the most transfixing allusions in Der Tod in Venedig was Saint Sebastian, whom I had never heard of. He turned out to be absolutely arresting, and here is his story. But first, here is appearance in Mann:
Early on an observant critic had described the new type of hero that this writer [Aschenbach] preferred, a figure returning over and over again in manifold variation: it was based on the concept of “an intellectual and youthful manliness which grits its teeth in proud modesty and calmly endures the swords and spears as they pass through its body”….For meeting one’s fate with dignity, grace under pressure of pain, is not simply a matter of sufferance; it is an active achievement, a positive triumph, and the figure of St. Sebastian is thus the most beautiful image, if not of art in general, then surely of the art under discussion here.
Heroism, triumph–the most beautiful image in art? Who was this Sebastian? His life was simple enough, I found. He was an officer in the Roman army during Diocletian’s 3rd century persecution of the Christians. When his own conversion to the faith was revealed, he was sentenced to be bound and killed by the arrows of his fellow soldiers. He miraculously survived his wounds and returned to confront Diocletian, but was recaptured and stoned to death.
In the early Middle Ages Sebastian was still innocent enough, invoked by soldiers and those seeking to ward off the plague, associated with the resilience that had saved him from his first death sentence. His image started to soften in the first years of the Renaissance, however, as his portrayals in art transitioned from bearded soldier to effete young man.
Somewhere in the Renaissance–and here was something closer to Thomas Mann’s saint–Sebastian became the Apollonian ideal of male beauty, all white flesh and thinly-veiled eros. The greatest of opposites were bound together perfectly in him, the physical with the spiritually ecstatic, tenaciousness with ravaged fragility, masculine and feminine at once. Great will and great weakness, beautiful even in torture. Was this Mann’s perfect form?
Of course it was this chiaroscuro Sebastian, and not the middle-aged army officer, that demanded the attention of Mann’s generation of artists and thinkers. He seemed to have been born for the 19th century, all isolation, suffering and desire, overtones of sadomasochism and androgyny. Here was real decadence, the stuff of Romanticism and then fin die siècle. His story fueled a cult, desperately attractive to those looking to push down walls between eros and religion, purity and lust.
And further, perhaps most tellingly for Mann’s own backstory, there was Sebastian’s transition in the 1800s from an image of male beauty to a direct homosexual icon. What had been subtext in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was celebrated and exploited, his isolation and persecution re-imagined as a sort of “coming out” narrative, the perfect form of the Renaissance painters re-drawn as the ultimate homoerotic symbol.
There were a thousand examples of such appropriation in Mann’s own decades, at the turn of the 19th century. Dorian Gray wore a cloak with a medallion of St. Sebastian, Oscar Wilde’s penname was Sebastian Melmoth. Freudian analysts reveled in the imagery of arrows-and-flesh. Early photographers and filmmakers used Sebastian’s story to blur the lines between spiritual and sexual ecstasy.
These are only snapshots from a fascinating history, a 1,000-year narrative of tension between eros, art, politics, and religion. Sebastian’s was quite the story.
But back to Thomas Mann. Where did Der Tod in Venedig fit into all of this? Why Sebastian, this creature of Catholicism and fin die siècle, in a work where the other allusions were so rigorously pagan, Classical? He seemed like an odd choice.
But then again, he was perfect. Like Mann’s other allusions, Sebastian’s presence in the narrative was revelatory, throwing hidden motives into relief, reflecting, foreshadowing, connecting to the broader philosophical motifs of the story.
The most blatant thematic tie-in to Der Tod in Venedig were the homoerotic aspects of Sebastian’s story. Mann’s choice of the saint fit in with his own desperately repressed biography and the basic plot of his novella, the love of a male artist for a 14-year-old boy. It matched the work’s philosophic backdrop, too-Plato’s dialogues on eros, Symposium and the Phaedrus, where Socrates sat under a plane tree and taught the workings of love to a boy.
There were ties, too, between Sebastian and Tadzio himself, the child Aschenbach fell in love with on a beach in Venice. In both figures perfect youth and masculine beauty were bound to extreme weakness, even unto death. As Aschenbach said, Tadzio wouldn’t live much longer. And like Sebastian, Tadzio was not really human in the end, but rather consecrated to the realm of symbol and transcendence, the stuff of icon, saint, divinity, Form.
But above all, Sebastian was the perfect hero for Aschenbach, the embodiment of his life’s philosophy and everything he wanted for his art. In his credo Aschenbach spoke of a creator on the edge of exhaustion, overburdened, worn down to the point of annihilation, but still standing tall. An artist holding himself upright through ecstatic feats of will, winning greatness and overwhelming beauty through a heroism of weakness–this is what it meant to create in the 20th century. And what was the art that would come of it? It would be art as Despite, Aschenbach wrote, beautiful and worthy creation despite grief and suffering, infirmity, affliction, passion, terror, pain.
And this–this Despite-philosophy, this heroism of weakness–was Sebastian. He gave Aschenbach’s credo form, and that form was perfect. He had it all, seemingly effortlessly–the exhaustion uplifted by will, the proud modesty and calm endurance, the beauty Despite torture and exhaustion. He was the most beautiful image of Aschenbach’s art because he was the apotheosis of that art. As creator and creation, Sebastian triumphed.
So there it was. Sebastian’s image in Der Tod in Venedig was an overwhelmingly powerful one, in the end, reflecting the themes of the story and the artistic worldview of the main character, giving form to both the ideal creation and the ultimate creator.
But of course, even that would have been too simple for Thomas Mann. Sebastian was beautiful, yes–but the credo he embodied, Mann informed us with the most punctilious irony, was why Aschenbach failed.
Art as Despite–what sort of creation was that, really? It was somehow dishonest, this artistic avoidance of everything messy and painful in life. Creation despite grief? Despite passion? That was art in spite of life itself, and as such could only be one-sided, sterile, destined for the very frigidity Aschenbach found himself trapped in on a May afternoon after his 50th birthday.
And so he went to Venice and cast away all his Despite-philosophy by falling in love with a boy. But still he failed.
This was the unbearable tragedy. There was a balance to be had, and Aschenbach never found it. In throwing off all Despite he swung too far the other way, falling off the edge into delirium and self-abasement. In the place of sterile endurance there was debauchery, indignity, excess–no middle ground, no sign of the covenant between dionysian eros and standing-tall Despite that would have propelled Aschenbach to the creation of real beauty. Instead, the eros he found was criminal. His wish that the world perish in flames so that he could have his way with a child–there was no art in that.
In the end, Aschenbach lost his humanity and his life. By the final scene, is he even an artist any more? The image of Mann’s last page has little to do with Sebastian’s grace and dignity in the face of weakness. There is only a boy in the water and a fevered old man grasping towards something he can not attain.
Yes, this was supposed to be published a month ago. I didn’t post it because I didn’t know if it made sense; I still don’t. If you have feedback, please send it my way.
When I took what I had found out about St. Sebastian in to the Professor he said, “Well, those nuns back in Germany certainly didn’t teach me that in 2nd grade!”
Here is an excellent article on the history of St. Sebastian as a homoerotic icon in art. The translation of Der Tod in Venedig is Clayton Koelb’s. Also, Guido Reni is simply astounding. And that is all.