“Literature is the union of suffering with the instinct for form” – Thomas Mann
From the second chapter of Death in Venice, the descriptions of Gustav von Aschenbach and of course, other things.
For a major product of the intellect to make an immediate broad and deep impact it must rest upon a secret affinity; indeed, a congruence between the personal destiny of its author and the collective destiny of his generation. The people do not know why they bestow fame upon a given work of art. Though far from connoisseurs, they believe they have discovered a hundred virtues to justify such enthusiasm, yet the true basis for their acclaim is an imponderable, mere affinity. Once, in a less than conspicuous passage, Aschenbach stated outright that nearly everything great owes its existence to “despites”: despite misery and affliction, poverty, desolation, physical debility, vice, passion, and a thousand other obstacles. But it was more than an observation; it was his experience, the very formula of his life and fame, the key to his work. Was it any wonder, therefore, that it likewise informed the moral makeup and external demeanor of his most representative protagonists?
A new type of hero that he favored and that recurred in a variety of forms had been analyzed quite early by a shrewd critic, who said it rested on “an intellectual, adolescent conception of manliness,” one that “stands by calmly, gritting its teeth in proud shame, while swords and spears piece its flesh.” It was all very beautiful, clever, and precise, though it erred on the side of passivity. Because composure in the face of destiny and equanimity in the face of torture are not mere matters of endurance; they are an active achievement, a positive triumph, and the Sebastian figure is the most beautiful symbol, if not of art as a whole then certainly of the art here in question. What one saw when one looked into the world narrated by Aschenbach was elegant self-possession concealing inner dissolution and biological decay from the eyes of the world until the eleventh hour; a sallow, sensually destitute ugliness capable of fanning its smoldering lust into pure flame, indeed of rising to full sovereignty in the realm of beauty; pallid impotence probing the incandescent depths of the mind for the strength to cast an entire supercilious people at the foot of the Cross, at their feet; an obliging manner in the empty, punctilious service of form; the life, false and dangerous, and the swiftly enervating desires of the born deceiver. Observing all this and much more of a like nature, one might well wonder whether the only possible heroism was a heroism of the weak. Yet what heroism was more at one with the times?