Thursday, April 23, 2009

Gus von A. - The Fallen Dandy

" 'You see, Aschenbach has always lived liked this' -- here the speaker closed the fingers of his left hand to a fist -- 'never like this'--and he let his open hand hang relaxed from the back of his chair. It was apt."

Thomas Mann, at the outset of his novella Death in Venice, takes great care to establish his protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach as a disciplined man and respected poet - only to have the character's admirable qualities, by the story's end, disintegrate - replaced by ruinous obsession and capricious, irresponsible whim. Though the tenets of dandyism (as defined by may not have been explicitly stated and assembled at the time of Death in Venice's publication, it is clear that Thomas Mann wrote Gus von A with strict parameters in mind so as to make his descent into chaos and madness that much more shocking than if such misfortune had befallen a more mediocre man. When evaluated against the 12 points of comparison outlined in 'The Anatomy of a Dandy', von Aschenbach's heights appear at their highest and his lows seem beneath what would be thought capable of such a man. The loss of his physical distinction, elegance, self-mastery, aplomb, independence, wit, skepticism, endearing egotism, reserve, discriminating taste, and caprice - all of the things that make a dandy a dandy - is disturbing for the reader to *witness*, to endure - and I believe this theme of humbling and self-destruction is a large part of why this story persists as a classic.

Let's start at the very beginning - a very good place to start:

“Dandyism is the result of an artistic temperament working upon a fine body within the wide limits of fashion.” - Max Beerbohm

By this definition, Gus von A was a textbook dandy: "The union of dry, conscientious officialdom and ardent, obscure impulse, produced an artist..."

1. Physical distinction

Dandyism can only be painted on a suitable canvas. It is impossible to cut a dandy figure without being tall, slender and handsome, or having at least one of those characteristics to a high degree while remaining at least average in the other two. Fred Astaire was neither tall nor handsome, but he was “so thin you could spit through him.”

Count D’Orsay, of course, had all three qualities to the highest degree.

“To appear well dressed, be skinny and tall.” — Mason

2. Elegance

Elegance, of course, as defined by the standards of a dandy’s particular era.

“[The dandy’s] independence, assurance, originality, self-control and refinement should all be visible in the cut of his clothes.” — Ellen Moers

Dandies must love contemporary costume, says Beerbohm, and their dress should be “free from folly or affectation.”

Gus von A's initial physical description is as follows: "somewhat below middle height, dark and smooth-shaven, with... his almost delicate figure... rimless gold spectacles... , aristocratically hooked nose... yet it was art, not the stern discipline of an active career, that had taken over the office of modeling these features." By the final pages of the story, von Aschenbach was sickly, "worn quite out and unnerved... his head burned, his body was wet with clammy sweat, he was plagued by intolerable thirst." There was no sign, physically, of the man with whom we first became acquainted.

On his boat ride to Venice, Gus von A encounters an old man he considers foolish in his attempts to mimic the look and mannerisms of youth ("Could they not see he was old, that he had no right to wear the clothes they wore or pretend to be one of them?"). This ridiculous old man in all his buffoonery becomes a foil for von Aschenbach's own conscious decision, once deluded by obsession with his young muse Tadzio, to don the facade of youth in his old age: "A delicate carmine glowed on his cheeks where the skin had been so brown and leathery. The dry, anæmic lips grew full, they turned the colour of ripe strawberries, the lines round eyes and mouth were treated with a facial cream and gave place to youthful bloom." Disregarding how ridiculous he must have looked with stark hair dye, his face covered and caked in rouge, Gus von A, by the story's end loses any claims he held on admirable physical distinction or elegance.

2 down. 10 to go.

3. Self-mastery

Barbey speaks of the dandy’s staunch determination to remain unmoved, while Baudelaire says that should a dandy suffer pain, he will “keep smiling.”

“Manage yourself well and you may manage all the world.” — Bulwer-Lytton

“Immense calm with your heart pounding.” — Noel Coward

4. Aplomb

While self-mastery is the internal practice of keeping emotions in check, aplomb is how it is expressed to the dandy’s audience.

“Dandyism introduces antique calm among our modern agitations.” — Barbey d’Aurevilly

Gus von A and the characters he as a writer created possessed " 'the conception of an intellectual and virginal manliness, which clenches its teeth and stands in modest defiance of the swords and spears that pierce its side.'... there was the aristocratic self-command that is eaten out within and for as long as it can conceals its biologic decline from the eyes of the world". Not unlike Elliot Templeton in Maugham's The Razor's Edge, who ignores his own imminent mortality in favor of honoring a party invitation, the dandy never betrays any sign of inner conflict - a tenet to which Gus von A at first adhered. He knew that "almost everything conspicuously great is great in despite: has come into being in defiance of affliction and pain; poverty, destitution, bodily weakness, vice, passion, and a thousand other obstructions. And that was more than observation—it was the fruit of experience, it was precisely the formula of his life and fame, it was the key to his work."

So bizarre, then, was his eventual loss of any sense of propriety or concept of how he would be perceived in his madness. Caught in what should have been embarrassing, reproachable situations, the new Aschenbach "remained there long, in utter drunkenness, powerless to tear himself away, blind to the danger of being caught in so mad an attitude." The power of intoxicating obsession over the learned life-long practice of self-mastery and aplomb becomes apparent in these words.

5. Independence

Ideally financial independence, but if the dandy is forced to work, a spirit of independence will be expressed through his work, as with Tom Wolfe. Independence — often to the point of aloofness — will also characterize the dandy’s dealings with the world.

“The epitome of selfish irresponsibility, he was ideally free of all human commitments that conflict with taste: passions, moralities, ambitions, politics or occupations.” — Moers

“Independence makes the dandy.” — Barbey d’Aurevilly

Gus von A was born rich, remained rich throughout life, lived by his pen and maintained independently wealthy until his death. He had no dependents and therefore no human commitments other than his own strict expectations of his life and career. Nothing to see here. 11/12 isn't bad lol.

6. Wit

Especially a paradoxical way of talking lightly of the serious and seriously of the light that carries philosophical implications.

(See Oscar Wilde, his characters such as Lord Henry and Lord Goring, and to a lesser degree every other notable dandy.)

7. A skeptical, world-weary, sophisticated, bored or blasé demeanor

“The dandy is blasé, or feigns to be.” — Baudelaire

“A spirit of gay misanthropy, a cynical, depreciating view of society.” — Lister

8. A self-mocking and ultimately endearing egotism

“Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself.” — Wilde, “The Ideal Husband”

9. Dignity/Reserve

Pelham keeps “the darker and stormier emotions” to himself — Bulwer-Lytton

“A flawless dandy, he would be annoyed if he were considered romantic.” — Oscar Wilde, “An Ideal Husband”

In the face of a Venitian cholera plague, one being hushed by police for the sake of tourism, Gus von A eschews all natural problem-solving and skepticism in favor of willful ignorance, so that he can extend his holiday and remain near Tadzio, his young muse.

He also begins to think and speak gravely of love, obsession, the nature of art and the artist, the lover and the loved, in grand lofty allusions to Phaedrus and Socrates. "Such were the devotee's thoughts, such the power of his emotions." Any poetic ability he'd once had for flitting lightly over such emotions was wiped away by madness.

"He trembled, he shrank, his will was steadfast to preserve and uphold his own god against this stranger who was sworn enemy to dignity and self-control. But.. his heart throbbed to the drums, his brain reeled, a blind rage seized him, a whirling lust... and in his very soul he tasted the bestial degradation of his fall." In a dream, his own insanity was made apparent.

10. Discriminating Taste

“To resist whatever may be suitable for the vulgar but is improper for the dandy.” — Moers

11. A renaissance man

“A complete gentleman, who, according to Sir Fopling, ought to dress well, dance well, fence well, have a genius for love letters, and an agreeable voice for a chamber.” — Etherege, quoted by Bulwer-Lytton in “Pelham”

Gus von A was powerless to resist the improper and vulgar once blinded by passion. "The presence of the youthful beauty that had bewitched him filled him with disgust of his own aging body; the sight of his own sharp features and grey hair plunged him in hopeless mortification; he made desperate efforts to recover the appearance and freshness of his youth". He began to wear bright clothes and ostentatious jewelry; his taste was lost to foolishness.

He remained enough of a gentleman outwardly - and the fury of his final work, inspired by Tadzio, seems to confirm that his talents for writing weren't damaged by his madness, so I don't think his status as a renaissance man was every in jeopardy. 10/12 isn't bad (lol).

12. Caprice

Because dandies are an enigma wrapped in a labyrinth, and because dandyism makes its own rules, the final quality is the ability to negate all the others.

For in the end there is not a code of dandyism, as Barbey writes. “If there were, anybody could be a dandy.”

The 12th tenet more or less nullifies my above arguments, but that's the beauty of the thing. Even for all his missteps, in the last line of Death in Venice, we realize that Gus von A's fans and admirers are completely oblivious and, (100 year old spoiler alert!) in death, he is restored to the position in which we first found him.

"And before nightfall a shocked and respectful world received the news of his decease."

His "preoccupation with [Tadzio's]form lead to intoxication and desire, they may lead the noblest among us to frightful emotional excesses, which his own stern cult of the beautiful would make him the first to condemn. So they too, they too, lead to the bottomless pit." Death in Venice remains so fascinating because of its protagonist's determination to ruin himself though every impulse advised against such lunacy.

Basically, if it could happen to him, the most disciplined and dandiest of dandies, it could happen to any among us.