Aschenbach’s Culpability in Death in Venice

It is the abandonment of dialogue that does most damage to the Socratic model. Tadzio may be receiving an education in desire, but his responsiveness is always potentially a projection of Aschenbach’s wishes. Up until the point where cholera is known to be spreading through the city the lover’s silence is merely feeble (and a condition of proximity to the boy), but his failure to inform Tadzio’s mother of the danger of remaining in Venice makes him culpable. Fear of Tadzio’s removal from the scene overrules a basic moral obligation and feeds into the death-dealing strain in Aschenbach’s desire: that pulse of satisfaction when he sees the boy’s ‘brittle teeth’ and surmises that ‘he’ll probably not live to grow old’. The implication that a short life-expectancy for Tadzio establishes a kind of parity with Aschenbach’s own age, or that, if Aschenbach cannot have him, perhaps no one else shall-none of this is redeemed by any compensatory suggestions that Tadzio will never suffer as Aschenbach suffers.

This excerpt from Helen Small’s The Long Life, recorded as I’m not certain that I fully appreciated Aschenbach’s perfidy, and his culpability in Tadzio and his mother’s fate. I appreciate Death in Venice all the greater.

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