Thursday, April 2, 2009

Tadzio is to Gus von A as Dorian Gray is to Basil Hallward

"…If you only knew what Dorian Gray is to me!"

Gus von A (the poet in Death in Venice) and Basil Hallward (the painter in The Picture of Dorian Gray), besides being characters in books with themes of dandyism and latent homosexuality, have in common seemingly shameful obsessions with their respective muses (Tadzio & Dorian Gray), obsessions that threatened, at least in each artist’s mind, to overshadow the resulting art itself.

From Death in Venice:
“Verily it is well for the world that it sees only the beauty of the completed work and not its origins nor the conditions whence it sprang; since knowledge of the artist's inspiration might often but confuse and alarm and so prevent the full effect of its excellence.”
There’s a similar, simpler saying about why patrons shouldn’t go into the kitchens of their favorite restaurants to see how the sausage is cooked - It ruins the magic. But the hesitation that Basil Hallward and Gus von A expressed was deeper than a fear of fallen illusions – it was a fear of reproach or embarrassment, of being found out.

Basil Hallward, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, explained to a friend that:
"every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the colored canvas, reveals himself. The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown with it the secret of my own soul.”
Similarly in Death in Venice, parallel to the story of Gus von A’s obsession with Tadzio, runs Plato’s story of Socrates’ obsession with Phaedrus in which Socrates says to his muse that "the lover was nearer the divine than the beloved; for the god was in the one but not in the other".* The consensus seems to be that the artist or lover has more at stake in exhibiting his work or exposing his love than does the muse or object of affection.


Both men were also protective of their muses’ identities and careful not to reveal to their muses the depth of their adoration, Basil Hallward not wanting to reveal even Dorian Gray’s name to a friend. He offered this explanation: “When I like people immensely I never tell their names to anyone. It seems like surrendering a part of them.” Gus von A went as far as to not look at Tadzio overtly or ever speak to him. Hallward, though he had a relationship with Dorian Gray, never betrayed the secret of his obsession, saying to his friend, Lord Henry:
“I have put into it all the extraordinary romance of which, of course, I have never dared to speak to him. He knows nothing about it. He will never know anything about it. But the world might guess it; and I will not bare my soul to their shallow, prying eyes. My heart shall never be put under their microscope. There is too much of myself in the thing, Harry,–too much of myself!”



The happiness of both Gus von A and Basil Hallward seemed to depend on their muses being constantly in their presence. Hallward “couldn’t be happy if [he] didn’t see [Dorian] every day. Of course sometimes it is only for a few minutes. But a few minutes with somebody one worships mean a great deal.” Gus von A couldn’t bear to leave the hotel at which he discovered Tadzio because “he felt the rapture of his blood, the poignant pleasure, and realized that it was for Tadzio's sake the leave-taking had been so hard.”

Because of these reservations and this maintained distance despite deep adoration, hidden, private, and figurative consummation of each relationship was forced to take place in the process of creating art.
“Strange hours, indeed, these were, and strangely unnerving the labour that filled them! Strangely fruitful intercourse this, between one body and another mind! When Aschenbach put aside his work and left the beach he felt exhausted, he felt broken--conscience reproached him, as it were after a debauch.”
In the above except, Gus von A writes feverishly in a fit of Tadzio-inspired creativity which results in excellent work and a feeling of guilt (we all know the feeling!)– and the sexual diction used to describe this process and the emotions it produces in Aschenbach are palpable. Only a few pages earlier, the act of conception that lead to Tadzio’s existence is compared to Gus von A’s act of creating poetry:
“What discipline, what precision of thought were expressed by the tense youthful perfection of this form! And yet the pure, strong will which had laboured in darkness and succeeded in bringing this godlike work of art to the light of day-was it not known and familiar to him, the artist? Was not the same force at work in himself when he strove in cold fury to liberate from the marble mass of language the slender forms of his art which he saw with the eye of his mind and would body forth to men as the mirror and image of spiritual beauty?"

Lastly, both men compare their muses to Greek mythological characters constantly… which is why, to this day, it’s just as common to hear a beautiful young man compared to a Grecian sculpture as to Tadzio or Dorian Gray (who share a similar physical description - eternally young, slight, with curly blond hair - Tadzio's face "recalled the noblest moment of Greek sculpture--pale, with a sweet reserve, with clustering honey-colored ringlets, the brow and nose descending in one line, the winning mouth, the expression of pure and godlike serenity." Dorian "was certainly wonderfully handsome, with his finely-curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair").

Basil Hallward offers a remedy to all of this suffering on the part of the artist.
“An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty. If I live, I will show the world what it is; and for that reason the world shall never see my portrait of Dorian Gray.”
Not an hour ago did I write, in response to a post at A Commonplace Blog, that “as a reader, it's important for me to ingest what I read as a work sovereign of its creator.” Basil Hallward and Gus von A would be pleased to know that, I hope.

This has all been very Pygmalion.


* I LOVE when literature employs parallel storylines where one is used to illuminate the other. It’s the main reason I enjoyed Watchmen as much as I did. Some people hated The Tale of the Black Freighter; I say we wouldn’t still be talking about Watchmen today if that element had been omitted.


Coming up next in the 'Death in Venice' series - Gus von A as a fallen dandy (as defined by dandyism.net).

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