This chapter begins by clearing away some ideas about the “philosophical backdrop” of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice as a prelude to approaching it from a different philosophical angle. Plato, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche all hover over Death in Venice. Their fundamental influence on the novella derives from the question central to their major writings: How should one live? The discussions then turn to the novella, which tells of the breakdown of discipline. It presents Mann's anatomy of the breakdown of discipline by highlighting particular episodes and concepts, tracing the ways in which the character Gustav von Aschenbach's will is directed and redirected, and understanding the changes in terms of their deviations from his central conception of himself and of what is valuable. These formulations connect Mann with questions explored by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, with the former's sense of the impossibility of realizing a vision of one's life that would give it worth, particularly with the diagnosis in terms of the blindness and rapacity of the will, and the latter's delineation of the difficulties imposed by culture and history on those who aspire to live well. The chapter hopes to make plausible the thought that Death in Venice exhibits the second grade of philosophical involvement, that it can be read as simultaneously showing, in the milieu of haute bourgeois society, the inevitable failure and frustration of the individual will and the contradiction within the ascetic ideal.
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