My Lockdown with “Death in Venice”




IN REVISITING LUCHINO VISCONTI’S 1971 film Death in Venice during the COVID-19 lockdown, I made an obvious morbid choice. But if I’d expected the film to help me cope with a pandemic scale of mortality, in Venice or elsewhere, it was simply because I misremembered it. No doubt, an “Asiatic cholera” — the prejudicial name familiarly compounding the peril — holds Venice in its grip. “Week by week,” the Cook’s agent tells Gustav von Aschenbach, “there are more and more deaths; in the hospitals there’s not one free bed.” Yet the film never shows us those beds, hospitals, deaths. In Gone with the Wind (1939), a crane shot dwarfs the egocentric Scarlett in a maze of dying soldiers. But in Visconti’s pestilential Venice, Aschenbach is the single visible fatality, and he has the whole, near-empty expanse of the Lido on which to expire. Given his preexisting heart condition, we can’t even be sure that he dies of cholera. What is certain is that the plague gives his literally heartbreaking pursuit of Tadzio — a teenager visiting Venice en famille — a gruesome poetic extension. As his obsession grows, signs of plague multiply, as if the putrid disease were only an emanation of prurient desire. Merely to follow this hottie lands Achenbach in hot spots — in vicoli and campi filthy with warning signs, bleach stains, smoking fires, and unsavory clusters of men who may be sick or just sordid: same difference.

Yet while Death in Venice is indifferent to the plague as a condition in itself, the film’s intensive focus on its protagonist vividly raises the question of self-isolation. As the sole three-dimensional character, Aschenbach is necessarily solitary; his standoffish personality follows on this structural sequestration: he has to be a loner. Even in flashbacks to more gregarious times with wife and daughter, he is “a man of avoidance,” the “keeper of distances.” The friend who makes these charges gets even blunter: “You are afraid to have direct, honest contact with anything!”

If Visconti’s dematerialized cholera teaches me nothing about our coronavirus, except perhaps that it goes unseen above a certain level of affluence, his protagonist’s intimacy issues speak volumes of unexpected pertinence to my distressed state under social distancing. Practically, there is nothing in common between Aschenbach’s hard-wired keeping to himself and the mandated protocols (mask, hand hygiene, six feet of separation) that I have been following for the past few months. His wariness is not motivated by the plague, merely a habit that persists during it. But it is just this perseverance that provokes this short essay. The forms of his social distancing are my only subject, as appropriating them for self-reflection is my only purpose. For I have lately understood two key facts about my own social distancing: the first is that in mimicking certain pre-pandemic experiences of isolation, I have revived their psychic life; and the second is that this resurrected life feels as awful as ever.

We meet Visconti’s avoidant Keeper of Distances reclining — but hardly resting — in a wicker chair on the upper deck of a Venice-bound steamship; the chair is tattered, its occupant trying his best to avoid that condition. He has the deck to himself except for a sailor adjusting some rigging, perhaps also old and torn, behind him. At the moment the sailor passes him to return below — just when there might be a slight risk of eye contact — Aschenbach abruptly averts his gaze, and then, when the sailor can no longer see him, puts him under intense inspection. There is no narrative motive for his reflexive caution, any more than there is a meteorological reason for his being sheathed in coat, hat, muffler, and gloves, with a throw on his lap, and a furled umbrella at his side. Like any good security system, Aschenbach’s avoidance operates even when there is no call for alarm. The only necessary item in his hazmat kit is the surveillance camera: his eyeglasses. The deck is empty now, but behind those lenses, the eyes remain restive: they doze, read, look out to sea, do none of these things for very long; what suits him best, finally, is the rabbity business of looking here, there, everywhere into the empty space around him.

Aschenbach’s self-isolation will never be an achieved state but only these unceasing exertions to bring such a state into being; he is someone who, for reasons that even the talky flashbacks do not provide, is in perpetual recoil, an incredible shrinking man. The world (whatever “the world” might name in his psyche) is so much with him that, even in solitude, he never feels safely alone; swaddle him in as many layers as you like and he remains a bundle of nerves. In this endless endeavor to draw himself in, he enlists every syllable of his body language (in Dirk Bogarde’s brilliantly fussy impersonation), pursing his lips and shooing away people with little flapping hands. His touch-me-not bearing is rivaled in its will to self-containment only by the stout piece of hard luggage he travels with; in both cases, evidently, are breakables. Even the professionally unctuous hotel staff makes no headway against his curt diction, and his slight stoop, which might soften his overall stiffness, only gives his stride a mission: to cut through the crowd.

Aschenbach begins admiring Tadzio at the hotel — the Grand Hôtel des Bains doesn’t draw the beautiful people, and his pretty face is one of the few worth dwelling on. But on the Lido (which, without benefit of ladies’ evening dresses, presents an even drearier scene), Tadzio acquires a new claim to exceptionalism; here Aschenbach’s aesthetic appreciation of a face becomes an erotic reaction to a body. What effects the shift is the sight of Tadzio walking toward him in a provocative piece of swimwear. His close-fitting blue-striped bathing suit appears in the Thomas Mann story too, where it is said to accentuate “the symmetry of the breasts.” The effect is lost in adaptation, not just because Björn Andrésen as Tadzio is too meager of chest to pull it off, but also because Visconti memorably moves the accent, and our captive eyes with it, to Tadzio’s crotch. Japanese pornography famously pixelates the actors’ private parts; here the image takes the opposite tack: so sharp and centrally framed is Tadzio’s bulge that, as he walks toward us (that is, toward the camera and Aschenbach), his graceful face for once slips out of focus. A reverse shot shows Aschenbach looking on and fanning himself, but that hardly cools things down: the camera cuts back to Tadzio who is continuing his catwalk at even closer range.

What’s shocking about the sequence is the ballsy desublimation it wreaks on the primly Platonized eroticism of Mann’s story, which, in more than one sense, never goes there. But it is also astounding that a mainstream film in 1971 should compel us to pay any attention to a cock; one needs to channel the late Boyd McDonald’s talent for queer leering to do justice to the image’s startling powers of solicitation. [1] If Visconti’s camera does not simply note Tadzio’s cock in that faux-casual “every guy has one” sort of way, neither does Piero Tosi’s costume minimalistically classicize it. This is not the modest knob of Hellenistic nudes; these are privates on parade! One is struck at how, with such economy of means, the garment produces extravagancies of drapery worthy of a perizoma on the crucified Christ: the straight horizontal stripes ripple when they encounter swells, and these swells in turn are framed, and mimicked, by the folds in the material they compel to bunch. But the close fit’s main functions are of course sculptural. It’s not just that you can distinguish, with inescapable precision, the contours of Tadzio’s young, but definitely post-pubescent, genitals. The constriction also requires cantilevering them, stowing them up to the side, and thus promoting the illusion that they are straining at the fabric, somewhere en route to arousal. Thanks to this dressing, as custom tailors used to say, Tadzio bears his cock, in the same way a cigarette girl might carry her tray, or a waiter proffer a basket of fruit.

The bigger tease, though: as the fruit basket in question gets closer to the lens, not only does the detail available for inspection increase; so too does the likelihood of a too-close encounter with Aschenbach. Virtually, a telephoto lens has already joined Tadzio and Aschenbach together: in its reduced perspective, Tadzio’s midground body is contiguous with the foreground patch of white that is the back of Ascenbach’s suit. [2] Were Tadzio to carry his basket much further, I calculate, it would be end up right in front — and just at the height — of the little table where Aschenbach keeps handy his cigarettes and strawberries.

This promised, threatened contact never takes place. In the knick of time, Tadzio is hailed by a young friend who, crooking his arm around Tadzio’s neck, pulls him off to help finish a sand castle. Another young friend approaches: the handsomely black-haired Jaschu, older than Tadzio, taller, more muscular, a hunk to his twink; he puts his arm around Tadzio’s shoulder; and together they walk back to the cabanas, so close their shapely haunches touch. The magnetic bonding of their bodies recalls Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman walking to the telephone in Notorious (1946). As if channeling that memorable make-out, Jaschu boldly plants a kiss on Tadzio, who laughs. Aschenbach is embarrassed by the sight, which must enact his just-aborted fantasy. All at once he develops a hysterical symptom: the fingers of his left hand start to fidget, summoned to the caress manqué. But the only object of these agitated digits is himself: they stroke his palm, cheek, chin, press his lips as if to be kissed, sucked, nibbled on. The fit subsides, he lowers his hand, how far is uncertain. His expression, not ungratified, turns inward, pensive; he has stopped looking. In someone with the hyperactive eyes of a silent film star, it is a gesture worth remarking.

For this man who needs his space, the tiny elevator of the Grand Hôtel des Bains is a panic attack waiting to happen; typically, he shares the cage not only with an operator but with guests inclined to embonpoint or the wearing of voluminous hats. But now, as he returns from the beach, it is worse than usual. He has stepped in, believing himself the only passenger; but just as the liftier is about to shut the door, a pack of youths swarm the car, as boisterously excited as if they had caught the last train. Crammed in by the invading bodies, Aschenbach closes his eyes, pretending to be far away. But his wretchedness has only begun. For when he has recovered the ability to look about him, he sees a boy, hatted and bent over, whom he hadn’t before noticed: head lifted and hat removed, the boy is Tadzio. From the other bodies, Aschenbach was content to produce a merely conventional sign of his distance; from this one, he needs remoteness so real that, back up in his room, he resolves to leave Venice at once.

The elevator has become a species of the magic box used by illusionists: an irritable loner walks in, and presto, out walks an anguished queen. Aschenbach’s first surprise — at being suddenly crowded in — is merely one of those minor vexations visited daily on the man for whom hell is other people. But the second surprise — at being suddenly crowded in with a forbidden love — has never befallen him; it brings him jouissance so intense — so unbearable — that his only escape from the trauma is to start packing. If it’s not that he actually got physical with the boy, it’s not the opposite either. The elevator ride has been nothing if not physical. In this compacted flashmob, Aschenbach has been pushed and shoved, brushed and bumped against; a body himself, he can’t not have returned the pressure. Contact with the flesh of others seems to prime his own. As by the stroke of a wand, the revelation of Tadzio’s presence gives all this brutish frottage the sudden — perhaps literally elevated — feel of carnal knowledge. Magic box? Say, rather, the back room of an ’80s gay bar, small and narrow so as to multiply the opportunities for accidental/on-purpose groping.

Proust is eloquent on the frustration of a kiss: as you move in for one, you lose sight of the handsome face that set you in motion. To turn his point around: when you’re too close to get a proper look at the object of your desire, you’re already phantasmically (and often actually) on your way to embracing him. Something like this happens to Aschenbach in the elevator. Yes, here is Jaschu again whispering confidences in Tadzio’s ear, but now Aschenbach is near enough to take his proxy’s place, even to see small imperfections on Tadzio’s skin. Of course he can still identify Tadzio, but he is much too close for the attractive, aesthetically framed and distanced viewpoints he’d enjoyed up till now. In testimony to which, as in every crucial moment of this relationship, his eyes drop, turn away. No longer “just looking,” no longer looking at all, he gives himself over to the heat and crush of jostling bodies, among which he must now imagine feeling Tadzio’s (or perhaps, by some distinctly possible confusion, Jaschu’s). In this state, Aschenbach hallucinates the total collapse of distance foreseen when Tadzio was swanning the Lido.

Of petting Tadzio’s packet — of putting Tadzio’s hand on his own pant —Aschenbach is innocent only in deed; in leaving Venice, he would be fleeing the scene of a grave, if wholly imaginary, crime. Many viewers will feel relief at his sudden fit of self-revulsion, because Visconti’s camera has drawn all of us into Aschenbach’s unforeseen, but, in this film, hardly unimaginable, quandary: “Do I want to fuck this boy?” “Does he want to fuck me?” The decision to decamp is appreciably overdetermined. Above all, of course, Aschenbach seeks to remove himself from pederastic temptation. (There would be nothing illegal were Tadzio to return the older man’s affections — the age of consent in Italy being 14 since the late 19th century — but even if Aschenbach knows this fact, it must seem a technicality when, under the protection of a mother and a governess, the boy is still building castles on the Lido.)

But he is also guiltily remembering his marriage vows. For there is a Frau von Aschenbach in the picture — literally, in the photograph he has placed in his hotel room; symbolically, in the ring he never removes. Back from the elevator, he regards her image dolefully, wishing he could explain himself. Frankly, though, not being a married man, and having last been interested in a 14-year-old when I was 12, I find myself most invested in a third element of the shameful mix: this old man has understood that he is old — too old to get in on the fledging gay action embodied by Tadzio and Jaschu, opportunities and pleasures that heteronormativity has long since stolen from him, that are now, to face facts, lost forever. But whether he is running away from perversion, infidelity, or abjection, sex is always a nonstarter in Aschenbach’s anguished consciousness; the obviousness of his desire is matched only by the obviousness of its impossibility.

An alternative treatment of the subject lies just down the Boot in Naples, the earthy setting of another plague-tinged Italian film from 1971: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Decameron. Here, under cover of the crowd observing a street performance, a certain Ser Ciappelletto, reputed to be “a bit queer,” reaches down to touch the thingy of a boy next to him; persuaded by a gold piece and his own inclinations, the boy goes off with him. Desire here is casual, its consummation as perfunctory as scratching an itch. The insouciance of medieval man-boy love no doubt serves Pasolini’s nostalgic polemic against bourgeois sexual piety, but, for the same reason, it falls erotically flat. The titillation has been left out along with the horror. Aschenbach, by contrast, is self-condemned to prove the point in reverse. Foucault might have taken these two for the before and after of what he called the “perverse implantation,” the Victorian cultural transformation of sin into a deep psychological problem. Unlike Pasolini’s cavalier transgressor, Aschenbach must grapple with the whole croce e delizia of modern Homosexuality, whose comprehensively indexed pathologization only deepens the exquisite agony of its erotic charge. The elevator, more than magic box or back room, is redolent of the Closet, where Aschenbach practices desire and repression simultaneously, with equal and paralyzing intensity.

The walking variant of this paralysis, this languishing in longing, I call lingering. “Linger” is a frequentative verb, marking an action intensified by repetition. Much as nonstop gabbing becomes jabbering, and crackling with wit involves more than cracking one good joke, so lingering (from the Old English lengen, “lengthen”) means “lengthening at length.” To say that Aschenbach lingers in Venice doesn’t just mean that, having got as far as the train station, he returns to the city, the hotel, and the plague. For now, as he follows Tadzio and family on their walks, he must keep a certain distance, lag behind at some length. The template for this dance of distance is established by Tadzio himself: on leaving the elevator, he turns around, presumably to say a quick goodbye to his comrades; but instead, with curious ceremony, he starts walking backward, his steps as formally measured as if he were taking the woman’s part in a slow fox trot. As he retreats, his eyes focus on Aschenbach, and the shadow of an inviting smile crosses his lips. So he sets Aschenbach the terms for remote courting, for lingering behind at arm’s length.

Their subsequent saraband through the churches, squares, and alleyways of Venice reminds me of the less courtly “social dancing” in Catholic girls’ high schools of my youth. In this unforgettable form of social distancing, a nun would stand guard with a ruler whose biune function (both measuring infraction and punishing it) was to ensure “six inches for the Holy Ghost” between partners on the floor; wisesacres pretended to wonder if the length were sufficient. His own far more exigent chaperon, Aschenbach trails the boy at a discreet distance, letting him go on ahead if they get too close, while Tadzio slackens the pace when in danger of losing his pursuer. Inevitably, there are close calls: the nunnish governess gives Aschenbach some significant dirty looks, and seems to suspect Tadzio’s complicity. But more dreadful is the implied permanence of the arrangement. As in some cruel myth, or preemptive contrapasso, the two lovers can never touch, never talk; Aschenbach waves to the boy, knowing his gesture will not be seen — says, “I love you,” but the words will not be heard. Thus does love come to the avoidant, as the eroticization of avoidance. Aschenbach’s surrender to passion proves not an alternative to keeping distance, but only the last, most painful form of it.

¤

These days, I rise early and walk for health, like an old man at the Hôtel des Bains. As the distancing protocols in my neighborhood become stricter, I feel more conspicuous as a lone walker: a lot of joggers, but few promeneurs solitaires. Those who do walk tend to be coupled — with a dog, a child, a mate. I envy such tandems; they must mitigate the common condition, making our motto “Alone Together” less paradoxical. At the same time, I dread their expansive tendency (the way I used to dread the arrival of a family in a restaurant): inevitably some unleashed dog gets friendly, the careless kid runs me down on his scooter, the stray frisbee, with the precision of a guillotine’s cleaver, lands at my feet.

But another aspect of my walk is just as petrifying. For what I miss most in my isolation is the company of naked men at the gyms and saunas I frequented, now on lockdown. So I make my way up to Alta Plaza Park where men, at least partly undressed, determined to stay in shape, run the steps of the great stone staircase or, on the landings between flights, swing kettlebells between their legs. I can’t help noticing the aesthetic component social distancing has added to an intrinsically beautiful scene; distributed with quasi-artistic restraint across the staircase, these athletes look like statuary in a baroque parterre. Except that in no parterre on earth would I long to embrace the sculptures, or fear that they might suspect me of unduly admiring their torsos, or making overeducated guesses at what lies beneath their fig leaves. An excess of caution compels me to submit to the ultimate cruelty; having masked my face, I also mask my eyes, which pretend to be looking past what they would pause at. My lust no longer practicable, I have turned into the man whom, in 1971, I would sooner have died than become: that dirty old man — that sad old man — Gustav von Aschenbach!

In this queer time and place, the fear I’ve just confessed must be largely imaginary: the body builders, straight or not, don’t give a damn. That it doesn’t feel so, though, is the measure of the awful recurrence of isolation that I’ve been using the film to reflect on. The true revelation I received atop Alta Plaza Park was not that I had become Aschenbach at long last, painted up to chase after a 14-year-old; it was that, under very different guises, I had been Aschenbach for most of my life, even before I was a 14-year-old. One avatar was a boy in glasses who could never look men in the eye, who looked on from a distance while Tadzio and Jaschu roughhoused. A later one was the closet case who came out just in time for AIDS to claim most of his playmates; they died of “related complications,” a phrase that, along with their manifesting symptoms, returns in COVID-19 discourse with the vengeance of the repressed. The pandemic has made me, once again, that sorry thing: a mere spectator of life, the only difference being that the protective gear is now visible as such.

I am doing what I can to outlive “my Gustav.” But meanwhile, I gratefully accept his companionship; he’s grown on me during our interminable ordeal. For several weeks, I’ve been shadowing him as assiduously as a caregiver. I stick close enough to observe the desperate petition in his eyes; I pull back, often, to give him space. And always, I follow his avoidant gaze as it drifts over the crowd or zeros in on the object of his desire. I mirror, in other words, the close-ups, wide shots, pans, and zooms of Visconti’s film, which is — “now more than ever” — a film about watching, about watching out, about wanting a stranger.

¤

D. A. Miller, for many years John F. Hotchkis Professor at the University of California, has most recently been visiting professor at the University of Tokyo. His books include Hidden Hitchcock; Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style; and the forthcoming Second Time Around: From Art House to DVD.

¤

[1] His work, perforce vulgar, is exemplary in confronting film theory with its incomplete understanding of the male gaze and short-sightedness in imagining the extent of a female one. We still await a theorization of his throwaway notion, apropos of David Nelson in The Big Circus (1959), of a “suck-object.” See Boyd McDonald, Cruising the Movies: A Sexual Guide to Oldies on TV (Cambridge: semiotext(e), 2015), 43–47.

[2] Will Aitken, who has closely observed the ambiguity of this lens throughout the film, aptly asks, “How far apart, or how near, are Achenbach and Tadizo in any given scene?” Will Aitken, Death in Venice: A Queer Film Classic (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press. 2011), 150.

 

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