The Literary Explorer
an ongoing series by Thomas E. Kennedy and Walter Cummins
VENICE: "A DREAMLIKE DISTORTION"
by Walter Cummins
Everyone's been there—Dante, Goethe, Byron, Ruskin, Baron Corvo, James, Mann, Hemingway, Twain, Howells, Wharton, Vidal, McEwan. Browning died there. Pound is buried there, in the cemetery on the tiny island of San Michele. Mary McCarthy, Jan Morris, and Gary Wills are just a few from the 20th century who have written books about it. Shakespeare, who had never been there, used it as the setting for two of his plays. Which literary travelers haven't been to Venice? Which of them hasn't tried to capture it in fiction, essays, or poetry? So why one more report from yet another traveler? Of course it's a redundancy. Yet how can a series of literary travels exclude Venice?
Perhaps the greatest reason Venice appeals so much to writers—not to mention artists and composers—is that it seems unreal, a city conjured by a Calvino or a Borges. Calvino's Marco Polo, speaking to Kubla Kahn in Invisible Cities, announces, "Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice." The essence of cities, the ideal of a city, almost beyond belief. Streets of water lined with palazzo after palazzo, the curving sweep of the Grand Canal, a great square, dozens of small campi, bridge after bridge, towers, churches large and small, a unique architecture, water everywhere, thin black boats propelled by men with poles. Nothing like it in the world. Its very existence challenges the imagination.
Yet the beauty of its difference may be more disturbing than comforting, forbidding because it is so unfamiliar, unsettling our assumptions of what a city should be, how people should live. Why else does so much writing about Venice conjure such sinister forces, hidden, mysterious, haunting, lurking at its very heart?
Henry James illustrates the uneasiness about the city in which he set two novels, The Aspern Papers and Wings of the Dove. About riding in a gondola of his time, he said:
"The little closed cabin of this perfect vehicle, the movement, the darkness, and the splash, the indistinguishable swerves and twists, all the things you don't see and all the things you do see--each dim recognition and obscure arrest is a possible throb of your sense of being floated to your doom, even when the truth is simply and sociably that you are going out to tea. Nowhere else is anything as innocent so mysterious, nor anything so mysterious so pleasantly deterrent to protest."
Tea and doom, apprehension and the willingness to submit. It's an evocation of seduction. Thomas Mann wrote a masterpiece novella in which he examines such seductiveness in languorous detail, Death in Venice. A few years ago, an issue of The Literary Review, guest-edited by David Alexander, explored variations of that theme in a variety of stories and poems, "Death and Venice."
Perhaps the fear of the city's power emerges from an Anglo-Saxon suspicion of easeful luxury and splendor, the city's architectural blending of East and West, its visual remnants of centuries of wealth and power. Perhaps the loss of such power, the city's reduction to an aesthetic monument rather than an economic and political force, unnerves writers from countries at the height of such dominance.
John Ruskin, in his 1851-53 Stones of Venice, considers the city a cautionary tale for Britain in the “pitied destruction” of its one-time domination, hoping that his nation—then the current master of the seas—will learn from the example of Venice's “ruin.” He writes:
“. . . and though many of her palaces are for ever defaced, and many in desecrated ruins, there is still so much of magic in her aspect, that the hurried traveller, who must leave her before the wonder of that first aspect has been worn away, may still be led to forget the humility of her origin, and to shut his eyes to the depth of her desolation. . . . The impotent feelings of romance, so singularly characteristic of this century, may indeed gild, but never save, the remains of those mightier ages to which they are attached like climbing flowers; and they must be torn away from the magnificent fragments, if we would see them as they stood in their own strength. Those feelings, always as fruitless as they are fond, are in Venice not only incapable of protecting, but even of discerning, the objects to which they ought to have been attached. The Venice of modern fiction and drama is a thing of yesterday, a mere efflorescence of decay, a stage dream which the first ray of daylight must dissipate into dust.”
Today Venice faces a different threat, not vanishing into dust, but sinking beneath the waters of a lagoon rising because of global warming and land sinking because its aquifer has been depleted. Engineering plans are debated, the example of the Dutch, great manmade seawalls that would hold back the tide. Beyond the oppressive heat of summer and the chill winds of winter, San Marco now floods one hundred days a years; residents in boots walk about on raised planks. For centuries there has been an evanescence about Venice, a fear that it all might vanish, a sense of wonder that it ever existed at all, that it wasn't just an illusion.
That, of course, isn't quite the tourist's Venice, the millions who pour in every season to pack San Marco and possibly sink it further under their collective weight. They stand like statues while pigeons perch on extended arms and the tops of their heads; they snap photos, line up to climb the steps of the Campanile, buy souvenirs of plague doctor Carnivale masks and Murano glass, ride in gondolas, lick cones of gelato. Some may feel the urgency of making their visit before it becomes uninhabitable. But even they seem to be joining in the pleasure of the experience, amused not fearful.
Even though the gondolas now must navigate amid the traffic of throbbing vaporetti, motor water taxis, dredging boats, and supply barges, there is an eerieness about them that James recognized, the dark funereal shape, the Charon-like navigator, the passivity of the passengers. And the water beneath them, the lagoon that surrounds, can feel otherworldly in a grey haze. It all seems so vulnerable, so near being overwhelmed by darker forces. Dante visited Venice in 1306 and 1321, as an emissary from Ravenna. He knew something about what lies beneath.
Yet just steps away from the crowds, in the neighborhoods, Venice is a maze, navigating a puzzle, narrow walkways between stone buildings, turns into dead-ends, blind spots, a path suddenly ending at the brink of lapping water. Nothing is straight, no route clear. It's so easy to get lost, become disoriented. Turn a corner and something wonderful appears, turn another and you're lost again.
The film critic Roger Ebert explains some reasons why Venice disturbs in his review of the movie version of Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers:
“Venice is of course the correct city for this material. There is always the sense there of a corner not turned, a passage left unexplored, a lost building, a hidden place where unspeakable practices take place. The city is so old, so twisted in upon itself, that it has not been tamed and aired and sanitized.”
Thomas Mann, of all writers, captures the dissolution, the temptations of a voluptuous dissipation, the appeal of luxuriating in indolence and decadence, the lure of Thanatos through immersion in a beckoning sea. Even before he leaves his Germanic city of Munich, Mann's Gustav Aschenbach conjures a vision of an imaginary Venice in his longing to travel (in H.T. Lowe-Porter's English): “He beheld a landscape, a tropical marshland, beneath a reeking sky, steaming, monstrous, rank—a kind of primeval wilderness-world of islands, morasses, and alluvial channels.” Once he leaves home, his vision becomes hallucinatory, “a dreamlike distortion of perspective.” Through dazed senses as his boat enters the Grand Canal it was “as though things about him were just slightly losing their ordinary perspective, beginning to show a distortion that might merge into the grotesque.”
Aschenbach regards the “coffin-black” gondola as a harbinger of death, “the bier and last soundless voyage.” Reclining in “the softest, most luxurious, most relaxing seat in the world,” wishing the journey “might last forever,” he is taken, against his will, to the open sea by a gondolier who bares white teeth to the gums. This trip is actually to the Lido, where Aschenbach will succumb in a forbidden love for a beautiful young boy. Recalling Plato on the final pages of the novella, he sees this submission to beauty as “a bottomless pit” and soon after he dies in his chair at the edge of the sea, his hand pointing “outward as he hovered on before into an immensity of richest expectation.”
The traveler expects so much in Venice, a transformation into another realm. For writers like Mann, the realm that opens may be the deepest fears of the species, the longing for a special beauty and the foreboding of its loss.
Browning concludes his “A Toccata of Galuppi's” with these lines:
"As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
"Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:
"What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?
"Dust and ashes!" So you creak it, and I want the heart to scold.
Dear dead women, with such hair, too--what's become of all the gold
Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly and grown old.