Déjà vu may be a neurochemical trick that has no material meaning outside of the person in whom it occurs, but its exactness disorients anyone who’s experienced this unshakable sensation. Surely a particular event in a particular time and place cannot have happened more than once, according to our current understanding of physics, but the experience of reading Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice during the coronavirus pandemic brings on a sustained sense of déjà vu that is difficult to ignore. Taking on a story about a deadly disease may not appeal to everyone in the midst of a deadly outbreak, but it was an eerily compelling experience to consume a work containing passages that sound like they could’ve been written a few weeks ago, knowing Mann completed the novella more than 100 years ago. For all the technological progress made over the past century, humans have changed little in their approach to a health crisis.
I admittedly should have known Death in Venice concludes with an epidemic that leads to protagonist Gustav von Aschenbach’s eponymous fate, given the conditions of social restrictions under which I began Michael Heim’s 2004 translation of the 1912 work. I was aware of Aschenbach’s obsession with a 14-year-old Polish boy named Tadzio, whom he sees (though does not meet) on vacation in Venice. I also knew that Mann borrowed heavily from a similar personal experience to inform the narrative, and I was curious to see how the Nobel laureate approached such a taboo subject in 1912. Why not catch up on a classic that slipped by me over the years?
Of course, once disease entered Death in Venice, my reading became focused through a contemporary lens of dire headlines and frightening statistics. Aschenbach dominates most of the novella as he vacations in Venice, contemplates leaving, and is compelled to stay by a mixture of chance and an infatuation with Tadzio, which causes him to ignore all good sense and succumb to the cholera epidemic sweeping through the city. But descriptions of the public’s response to the disease sounded so familiar that it became difficult not to place Aschenbach in 2020, behaving in similar fashion, not wanting to abandon his desire despite the obvious threat. Mann cloaks his fictional writer’s struggle in classical language and imagery, but Death in Venice remains relevant in part because the self-absorbed man of privilege, the man who wants to ignore the world and satisfy himself, still walks among us as a product of the society and economy we’ve designed. And at this point, simply walking among us can have far-reaching effects.
Compare the early-March response of modern Venice to the fictional version of a century ago. Venetian restaurants in St. Mark’s Square offered “a free drink for each one purchased in an attempt to attract custom as the city emptied out amid Italy’s developing coronavirus outbreak.” Not only is this incomprehensively misguided, but the primacy of the economy and the need to keep money flowing have altered little since the beginning of the 20th century. As it becomes clear the Venetians of Mann’s work are concealing the seriousness of the epidemic, Aschenbach recognizes the forces of supposed economic necessity fighting against it:
…fear of the overall damage that would be done — concern over the recently opened art exhibition in the Public Gardens and the tremendous losses with which the hotels, the shops, the entire, multifaceted tourist trade would be threatened in case of panic and loss of confidence — proved stronger in the city than the love of truth and respect for international covenants: it made the authorities stick stubbornly to their policy of secrecy and denial.
This “overall damage” belies the human toll the disease has already taken, made evident in the sentence preceding the above quote. “By early June the isolation wards of the Ospedale Civile had quietly begun to fill up; room in the two orphanages became scarce, and there was an eerily brisk traffic between the quay of the Fondamente Nuove and San Michele, the cemetery island.” Switch the month around, and you could easily be reading a news story from the past six weeks, maybe even an article that describes Italian Democratic Party boss Nicola Zingaretti infamously posting a picture of himself enjoying an aperitivo in Milan to encourage citizens to get out there and continue socializing — i.e. spending money — in the face of a pandemic whose seriousness and death toll were already increasing by the day. Zingaretti later announced he had the virus.
Italy’s initial response (which the United States mimicked in many ways) is rooted, like the Venetian response of Death in Venice, in the capitalist requirement for motion. Talking about capitalism’s failures in the face of this global health crisis doesn’t exactly plumb new depths, but Death in Venice offers a reminder that these failures are not new, and they persist despite the technological advances often touted in defense of an economic system that has vastly increased global wealth. People and their money must continue to flow, to interact, in order to sustain the economy, which is exactly what a virus needs to flourish. Milan even rolled out a misguided PR slogan in the face of the virus, “Milan Doesn’t Stop,” demonstrating this deference to economic inertia. A force capable of severely limiting the human capacity to satisfy personal desires is the only way to stop the money from continuing to move.
It’s therefore no surprise that Aschenbach’s decision to align with the Venetian officials and ignore the deadly threat so closely resembles the actions of several influential leaders and plenty of ordinary citizens today. For all the rationality attributed to the post-Enlightenment era of scientific deification, knowledge in Death in Venice proves useless in the face of individual desire, because the axiomatic promotion of such desire is crucial to the economic system that dominates the globe. Aschenbach acquires all the practical information he needs to understand the disease’s seriousness. While he has already mostly cobbled together the reality of the situation, a British travel agent finally delivers the explicit truth that — like the novel coronavirus some in the West have called “Chinese coronavirus” or “Wuhan coronavirus” in an effort to diminish the threat of the disease by portraying it as foreign and therefore somehow culturally selective — “Indian cholera” has spread around the world thanks to a robust network of global trade, and it has begun to ravage Venice. Even with the unprecedented progress made in science and medicine since the early 20th century, we substantively possess similar knowledge about COVID-19: where it came from, the global path it’s traveled, and more or less what it can do to its victims. Epidemiologists may be able to map the spread more accurately, and anyone can look up a computer-generated image of the virus itself, but the fear, uncertainty, and mixed messages from current officials are chillingly reminiscent of Mann’s descriptions.
The uncertainty, and subsequent questionable decision-making on Aschenbach’s part, comes even though he has devoted several days to cutting through the euphemisms and discovering the truth. When he finally receives the full story and a simple piece of advice from the British agent — “You would do well to leave, and today rather than tomorrow” — he actively ignores it. “[T]he thought of returning home, of coming to his senses, sobering up, resuming his drudgery and craft was so abhorrent to him that his face twisted into an expression of physical revulsion. ‘Nothing is to be said about it!’ he whispered wildly. And added, ‘I shall say nothing.’” Knowledge alone doesn’t provide sufficient cause for action, either on an individual or a collective level, and personal desire inevitably inflects any response to a crisis. In this case we see desire manifest as both an individual submission to lust, and a broader compulsion to maintain the economy. Aschenbach prefers to risk his life so he can feel the pleasure of observing and lusting after Tadzio, while the Venetian officials will gladly trade deaths for the fantasy that they can contain the outbreak and preserve commerce.
Not every reaction to the current pandemic can be attributed to desire and economic forces, of course. We received confusing, contradictory, and misleading information from officials as the virus began to spread, which altered how the public viewed the threat and therefore what their choices about how to manage it would be. But Aschenbach faces the same obstacles:
Obsessed with the need to obtain new and reliable information on the status and progress of the disease, he rifled through the German papers in the cafes, the ones on the hotel newspaper table having disappeared for several days. They were all assertions and retractions: they would report twenty, forty, even a hundred or more deaths and instances of the disease, after which the existence of an epidemic was if not flatly denied then reduced to totally isolated cased introduced from outside. There was also a scattering of admonitions and protests against the dangerous game being played by the Italian authorities. Certainty was out of the question.
And yet, Aschenbach shares an attitude in common with the American protestors demanding the country “reopen”: even when evidence to the contrary is abundant, a person can convince himself an unpleasant reality does not exist.
As it becomes evident that no matter how loudly the voices clamoring for reopening yell, the world we reopen won’t be quite the same as the world of four months ago. And yet, one of the products of quarantine, or lockdown, or whatever state you call the past several weeks and immediate future, is the speculation about what our world will look like when this is “all over.” Death in Venice reminds us that plague, disease, pandemics are never completely “over” except for those who succumb to them. Another globally destructive disease will come along eventually, and when it does, it will be remarkably easy to ignore any of the lessons learned from this crisis — provided we haven’t done anything to mitigate the incentives to encourage continued work and consumption. Will we shift our definition of rational to include caution and restraint, protection of human life even at great economic cost and lost productive capacity?
I’m skeptical of humanity’s ability to avoid repeating mistakes, and Death in Venice supports my view. Given that the response to epidemic depicted in 1912, albeit fictionally, resembles so closely the 21st century’s response, it seems unlikely that we will become better equipped to confront a pandemic if we don’t alter the social and economic incentives to keep moving, to privilege the self, to indulge desires regardless of external conditions. Mann describes Aschenbach, pre-Venice, as, “Preoccupied with the tasks imposed upon him by his ego and the European psyche, overburdened by the obligation to produce, averse to diversion,” and the oppressive sense of an obligation to produce hasn’t changed all that much. Neither has the capacity to want stuff, to want to feel a certain way, to want, to want, to want. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to change. Mann’s ability to trap Aschenbach in the streets, in the canals, among the effluvia and filth of Venice’s inner city, gives the impression that there’s no escape, when in fact the solution to Aschenbach’s condition is simple: leave the city. Stop following Tadzio and get the hell out.
“Simple” only occasionally means “easy,” as is now evident from the various stay-at-home orders issued around the world. Just stay at home unless you need essentials. What are essentials? Once again, desire and a requirement for motion cloud the mind. When Aschenbach goes to the beach even after learning of the epidemic’s seriousness, images of packed beaches during stay-at-home orders slid through my brain. Yes, there’s a deadly pandemic circulating, but we have all to some degree been conditioned to treat satisfaction as a necessity. That’s how something so apparently trivial as going to the beach on a sunny day outweighs the collective risk for those who choose to ignore the orders, and in doing so they all contribute to a collective decision to promote the disease’s spread. There’s always a beach, or a mountain, or a park, a Tadzio beckoning.
This problem confronts us, fugue-like, today because the familiar feeling of personal freedom clashes violently with a capitalist global economy, and that fundamental tension hasn’t changed in the century since Death in Venice was published. Selfishness is the great mandate of capitalism. We see now that it has the ability to destroy both the economy and human lives.
Desire itself may not be a product of capitalism, but it’s certainly been pumped full of growth hormones as economic expansion has accelerated. Never have we been better equipped to act willingly against our own interests to satisfy this overflow of appetite, thanks to an unprecedented abundance of information — both true and false. The question now is whether, as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on and the next one looms on an invisible horizon, we’ll indulge in the desires we find unsatisfied under conditions of confinement. We have the individual, free, full of possibility; and we have a world plagued by seemingly intractable problems, massive existential crises that threaten all our lives and fence us in. Here we go, back to the beach. In the kind of global society capitalism has brought us, with all its conveniences and leisure and wealth, we must begin to acknowledge that acting solely according to one’s personal desires can literally bring about the collective fate that befalls Aschenbach: death. Unfortunately, as Mann shows, desire is one of the most potent human forces we possess.