At a Loss for Words: Writer's Block in Britten's Death in Venice

by Shersten Johnson

March 3, 2008


Based on Thomas Mann's story about an aging novelist's fateful obsession with an adolescent boy, Benjamin Britten's opera Death in Venice artfully dramatizes Mann's story of repressed sexuality masked as creative inhibition. Aschenbach's introductory monologue, beginning "My mind beats on and no words come,” alludes to the psychosexual roots of his dilemma. The music itself even sounds blocked, as do his words, which not only describe his problem, but also are inhibited syntactically and semantically. In order to discover how music and text blend to portray Aschenbach's writer's block, this article examines the opening monologue using a combination of tools: musical-theoretical and grammatical, to discern how Aschenbach's block "structures" the music and text; psychoanalytical, to uncover the causes of his crippling inhibition; and cognitive-linguistic, to ground the analysis in certain conceptual blends that permeate notions of creativity, sexuality, language, and music in this opera.


I. Aschenbach’s Self-introduction

In the opening scene of Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice (1973), Gustav von Aschenbach, an aging novelist, finds himself at a loss for words. While woodwinds quietly but insistently juxtapose erratic rhythms, Aschenbach obsesses over his confusing loss in a way that nevertheless situates the listener squarely within his dilemma. The music spills out in fits and starts, mimicking his frustration, and sweeping us directly into the center of an inward and paradoxical struggle about words formulated in words. He will go on to seek relief from his writer’s block in Venice, a place of inspiration for many artists. There he will find himself aesthetically attracted to a youth who inspires the few words Aschenbach manages to write. Becoming obsessed with the youth, though, Aschenbach will stay in Venice too long, ignore the warnings about a cholera plague threatening Venice, and succumb to the sickness.

     In this article, I will consider how Aschenbach’s self-introductory monologue provides listeners with a wealth of information about his dilemma and its probable outcome. As I will suggest, we immediately know that the nature of Aschenbach’s problem is:

  1. sonic: both music and textual sounds exhibit aural symptoms of blockage
  2. psychosexual: music and text imply an underlying libidinal problem rooted in a mind/body conflict that drives Aschenbach’s artistic struggle
  3. linguistic: Aschenbach’s words about his block are themselves syntactically and semantically blocked

As I will show, the addition of music helps deliver this information effectively. As Sandra Corse (1987) writes, “The music becomes a substitute for [Aschenbach’s] perception and for his subconscious; thus, the audience gets a better view of Aschenbach than the reader of the novella does—and a better view than he has of himself” (p. 132). The monologue itself suggests a combination of tools that I will be using to show how the opera communicates so much information so effectively in just its first few minutes:

  1. music-theoretical, to examine how Aschenbach’s block “structures” the music
  2. psychoanalytical,1
  3. to uncover the causes of his crippling inhibition, particularly drawing on Freudian notions, which permeate Thomas Mann’s novella, Der Tod in Venedig (1912), upon which Britten’s opera is based.2
  4. cognitive-linguistic, to ground the analysis in certain conceptual complexes that permeate all of the above, especially focusing on the image of flow that facilitates our understanding of creativity, sexuality, language, and music in this opera.

Various changes of texture and mood shape this monologue and suggest several subdivisions (coincident with rehearsal numbers in the score); audits of these sections and the symptoms they present (writer’s block, fatigue, insomnia, etc.) will help generate the means to theorize about the nature of obstructions in musical-textual processes that amplify the dramatic symptoms.3 The contour of Aschenbach’s self-introduction will thus give shape to the articulation of ideas in this essay.

II. Symptoms and Analysis

Scene 1: Writer’s Block4

“My mind beats on, my mind beats on, and no words come.”

Strolling through a garden in his home town of Munich in an attempt to clear his head, Aschenbach sings these words as he grapples with his lost sense of identity; writing is fundamental to his sense of self, but his usual tightly controlled writing rituals are not having their desired effect. In crafting this story in 1911, Thomas Mann was greatly influenced by the ideas of Freud circulating at the time, and in fact Freud describes creative inhibitions in terms strikingly similar to those of Aschenbach in the opening moments of Death in Venice:

    Creative imagination and work go together with me; I take no delight in anything else. That would be a prescription for happiness were it not for the fact the one’s productivity depends entirely on sensitive moods. What is one to do on a day when thoughts cease to flow and proper words won’t come?”(as cited in Jones, 1961, p. 365)

Freud’s statements about creativity are born out in the themes of Death in Venice, due in part to his widely acknowledged influence on Mann, but more fundamentally due to the highly metaphorical topography of his theories, as we shall see. The words we do have—those Aschenbach sings—communicate his psychological condition through music, sonance, and syntax. As Philip Rupprecht writes, the phrase “reveals the writer in all the quiet, monosyllabic desperation of a creative blockage” (p. 247). Unable to move forward, Aschenbach only recycles the same phrase. The loss of words resonates in the sheer paucity of syllables.

     “My mind beats on” also articulates an odd metaphor. We do not normally imagine minds beating, but this phrase, which substitutes beating for thinking, evokes the colloquial frustration of beating one’s head against the wall, or the proverbial futility of “beating a dead horse.” More directly, though, the metaphor depicts a brain physiologically pulsing with the exertion of thinking. One imagines Aschenbach’s temples throbbing as he struggles to think things through, thus metonymically substituting head for mind. Beating, however, has pulmonary connotations and a beating heart metonymically substitutes for the throbbing head.5 This interpretation is consistent with the novella’s expression “motus animi continuus,” which Mann uses to refer to the “productive mechanism within … in which eloquence resides.” The phrase literally means “continuous motion at heart.” The opera captures the substitution of heart for mind with the notion of “beats,” adding a concretely physical dimension to the more abstract image of “mind.” The following diagram shows the substitution and the mapping between mental and physical domains:6

Omitted from the blend of mind and heart, however, is the symbolic “heart” that feels and emotes. In essence, this “heart” is part of the mental space, since emotions are psychological states. Aschenbach purposefully leaves this element unarticulated, though, foreshadowing a later revelation: we soon learn that he tries to suppress emotion and restrict himself to the purely logical in order to write his epic texts: “I reject the words called forth by passion, I suspect the easy judgments of the heart.” The following diagram represents the blend, showing the omitted element.

     The opera’s notion of “beating” also underscores a physically grounded element that Aschenbach suppresses. The image reinforces the feeling of impotence Aschenbach feels when he complains that words do not come. As with the heart metaphor, the physical functions of sexuality meld together with abstract notions of mind, hinting at the underlying libidinal nature of Aschenbach’s problem. Rupprecht captures this element well when he writes “Aschenbach’s mind beats on in authentically Freudian rhythms, for it is controlled at this point by sexual drives of which he is unaware”(p. 247).

     Freud (1926/1959) theorized about the libidinal connection between mind and body in those suffering from artistic inhibitions:

    Analysis shows that when activities like playing the piano, writing or even walking are subjected to neurotic inhibitions it is because the physical organs brought into play––the fingers or the legs––have become too strongly eroticised.…[T]he ego-function of an organ is impaired if its erotogenicity––its sexual significance––is increased.… As soon as writing, which entails making a liquid flow out of a tube on to a piece of white paper, assumes the significance of copulation, or as soon as walking becomes a symbolic substitute for treading upon the body of mother earth, both writing and walking are stopped because they represent the performance of a forbidden sexual act. (p. 89-90)

Here, a blend of body and mind images also underlies Freud’s description of writer’s inhibition. In the Physical Domain, the fingers (and pen) take on the significance of a penis as erotic thoughts surface in the Mental Domain. If the erotic impulses – represented by the penis and judged forbidden by the conscious mind – are repressed, then creative thoughts are not allowed to reach the mind and therefore writing – represented by the flow of ink from the pen – is blocked. The following diagram represents the blend of body and mind underlying Freud’s notions.

Implied in the metaphorical blend of body and mind are acoustical properties as well. Marc Weiner (1987) details the sonic environment of Mann’s novella tracking the range of sounds associated with the class structure of European society at the beginning of the twentieth century. On the attenuated acoustical extreme stands the elite artist who locks himself away in contemplation, the nation of Germany with its people’s reserve projected in quietude, and the isolated endeavor of writing. The other acoustical extreme is represented by the noisy proletarian masses, the clamorous wildness of Venice, and the sonorous art of music. Aschenbach’s thoughts (which he wishes were silent) and the audible beats implicit in the opening words of the opera, convey a similar acoustical dichotomy. No wonder words fail to come — words, even those embedded in unexpressed thoughts, have a sub-aural sonic component. Aschenbach’s fear of sensuous stimulation requires that they be suppressed.

     Britten’s music, an acoustical “extreme,” intensifies the sonic implications of the metaphorical combination of physical and mental domains by adding material musical sounds to the “beating” of Aschenbach’s mind. Percussive repeated pitches in the winds accompany each of Aschenbach’s phrases. Staccato notes alternating elaborate rhythms foreground the physical articulation of these sounds. Not only do we hear that the beating of Aschenbach’s mind is frenzied and erratic, but it is almost as if these notes mime voices in his head that provide him with raw phonemic materials of missing words. Aschenbach possesses the inert elemental matter of language, but not the means to mold it into a continuous and logical linguistic flow.7

     The music further expresses the frustration of the metaphor in Aschenbach’s melody. Contour and rhythm group the notes of the motive into pairs, F-G, F#-G#, G#-A# and A-B. Although the overall melody progresses upward, its progress is hampered, inhibited: a whole step forward (F-G), a half step backward (to F#). In fact, the steps themselves set up an expectation of scalar motion: F and G begin a pattern of steps suggesting that some kind of A will follow. When we then hear F#-G#-A# instead, it seems that the scalar “staircase” itself shifts out from under us. Another shift sends A# back to A-natural and the ascent has to begin again.8 In short, like his prose, Aschenbach’s vocal line lacks fluidity and fluency (p. 527).9

     The only break from the arduous step motion comes with Aschenbach’s “and no …” Conspicuous against the previously stepwise context, B pulls toward E like the common melodic formation sol-do. In this quasi-tonal context, the final Eb ends the phrase with a disquieting note of incompleteness. The harp foregrounds the unstable tonal situation in disturbing waves of sound. As Aschenbach cadences, the strings join in and a throbbing cacophony of background noise swells making it clear that his voice has been the only force holding the distractions at bay. This relation between voice and sonic distraction foreshadows a later moment in the opera when Aschenbach’s choice not to speak seals his fate. Without the force of his voice to suppress the distractions, he will lose his sonic battle. Finally, the accumulated sounds crescendo alarmingly until they suddenly stop for an instant. The resulting eerie silence is quite startling in contrast with the crescendo of the foregoing measures. The silence is temporary, though, and the beating begins again shortly.

     Mixed in with these distracting voices is a significantly recognizable reference to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, a story of eroticized death. Roy Travis (1987) makes the connection between the F-Ab-B-Eb sonority sustained in the opening measures of Death in Venice and the celebrated “Tristan chord” (pp. 132-33). Travis points out the aptness of this reference to convey Aschenbach’s desire, especially when Aschenbach cannot resolve the dissonant chord. The reference further suggests that the roots of Aschenbach’s dilemma lie in the realm of the erotic, pointing out both the nature of his longing (for sexual fulfillment) and beyond to the way in which those yearnings will be fulfilled (in death).

Rehearsal Number 1: Fatigue

“Taxing, tiring, taxing, tiring, unyielding, unproductive—”

     A comparison of Aschenbach’s opening vocal line with this one shows that they have similar rhythms and gestures. This time, though, the linguistic structure is quite different. Ex. 1 compares the two texts, which show an increase in word length from at most a mere five letters (“beats”) to twelve letters (“unproductive”) and increase from single syllables in “my mind beats on” to the four syllables of “un-pro-duc-tive.” Meanwhile, the grammatical structure — at first a complete sentence — fragments into individual words. So, while there is a building of word mass there is a corresponding breakdown of syntactic structure, as if there were a ceiling to Aschenbach’s limited powers of communication, correlating words and connective grammar in a reciprocal relation that cancels both out. The grammatical disintegration further reinforces the atomization of language: these are mere words, not comprehensible language. He is stuck in a morphological rut, and his obsessive linguistic behavior belies an underlying pathology. In addition, the adjective fragments are forged of the same raw linguistic materials, perhaps in order to conserve creative effort. The first five words have the same suffix, the first four have the same starting consonant, and the use of the two “un-” prefixes have the connotative effect of annulment beyond the mere denotative reference of the text. According to Freud (1925/1961) the word no and the prefix un are invariable indicators of the presence of repression (pp. 235-240).10 A repressed image or idea only can gain access to consciousness if it is negated via substitution. The production of words at such enormous cost and their disintegration into isolated fragments resemble the symptoms of repression that Freud (1915) discusses in connection with schizophrenia, in which the subject’s speech becomes “stilted” or “precious” (in the sense of expensive) and sentences become grammatically disorganized (pp. 196-204).

Ex. 1: Syllabic construction of Aschenbach’s opening phrases.

The reciprocal relation between word complexity and grammatical logic resonates in the vocal melody. Aschenbach’s opening melody uses all of the possible 12 pitch classes of the octave in the order F-G-F#-G#-A#-A-B-E-D-C-Db-Eb. Though these pitch classes do not remain serialized in the subsequent music, their order is important nonetheless. Ex. 2 tabulates these pitches and places below it two permutations of their order. Aschenbach’s “taxing, tiring … ” performs the inversion (upside down version) of his “My mind…” phrase (transposed to begin on Eb). This inverted row sounds surprisingly similar to the retrograde though (backwards version), also shown in Ex. 2: dark shading shows pitches in the same order as the retrograde, medium shading shows adjacent pairs that merely reverse their order compared to the retrograde, and light shading shows pitches that maintain their order from the original. In short, “Taxing, tiring…” thus mirror inverts the opening and at the same time sounds like it is going backwards all while starting over with the same rhythms and groupings. The rhythms of the paired entrances in the winds essentially retrograde as well. The piccolos, for example, retrograde the repeated rhythmic pattern played by the clarinets, and so on. Their accumulated pitches sound a dissonant F7 chord that lingers unresolved.

Ex. 2: Twelve-tone construction of Aschenbach’s phrases in ms. 1-5 and ms. 10-13

     As in the first phrase, E becomes a tonal center, but this time F destabilizes it. One could say, then, that the “odd” pitch classes, Eb (pitch class 3) and F (pitch class 5) are at odds with E (pitch class 4). In the course of the two phrases considered so far, the melody moves in a circular fashion, ascending from F, obscuring the tonic focus of E with Eb, then descending from Eb only to further obscure E with F. The inverted and pseudo-retrograded relations of these two phrases heighten the effect of simultaneous, self-canceling backward and forward motion. There is the feeling of no net gain: the melody itself is “unyielding” and “unproductive.”

     Travis (1987) acknowledges the destabilizing effects of F and Eb/D#, but hears the passage somewhat differently:

    Aschenbach’s psychological paralysis is conveyed by impotent attempts to move away from E—first E to D# into the Tristan chord …, then E to F-natural into [a] dominant seventh chord …. This melodic activity is then summarized and compressed, the resultant sharp dissonances eloquent of his sense of stinging humiliation: ‘I, Aschenbach,’ E to D# ‘famous as a master-writer’ E to F-natural. His dilemma is acute—E dissonating against D#, against F-natural … . (p. 133)

Travis’s “impotent attempts to move away from E” seem to overlook Aschenbach’s rather bold attempts to leap toward E, placing E in stark relief against the otherwise stepwise motion. Rather than weak attempts to avoid E, then, I hear an oscillation between conflicting motions toward and away from E. These oscillations propel the opening monologue in an inveterate cycle that forms a melodic simulacrum of Aschenbach’s dilemma: he is spinning his wheels, unable to move forward.

     Melodic and harmonic elements, along with the dismal gerunds “taxing, tiring, unyielding” all help to reinforce the operatic image of a blocked writer. Rupprecht, in fact, begins his chapter on Death in Venice: “Britten’s opera … opens, like Thomas Mann’s novella, on the scene of Aschenbach’s writer’s block…” (p. 245). A closer look at the novella (Mann, 1911/1945) reveals a somewhat different image of the problem, though; Mann’s character exhausts himself with efforts to keep his creative flow in check.

    …after the noon meal [Aschenbach] found himself powerless to check the onward sweep of the productive mechanism within him, that motus animi continuus. (p. 3)

Surprisingly, the opera’s libretto virtually inverts Mann’s description of Aschenbach’s problem by focusing on the paucity of words expressed by “unproductive” in contradistinction to the overabundance of Mann’s productive flow.11 What exactly does this twist of viewpoint do to our perception of the opera’s Aschenbach, and how does it further its narrative? The notion of writer’s block, codified in the 1950s by Edmund Bergler,12 would have been available to Britten and Piper but not Mann, although the Freudian ideas that prefigure Bergler’s notion were in the air during Mann’s time.13 Perhaps the monologue’s description of Aschenbach’s problem was more amenable to the musical shorthand necessary in this genre: writer’s block becomes speaker’s block: “no words come” foreshadows a number of later occasions on which Aschenbach catastrophically fails to communicate aloud. Donald Mitchell (1984) writes

    That there is no verbal communication between the two principals in Death in Venice certainly creates a situation ripe for music, and is doubtless one of the reasons why the story had a powerful appeal for the composer. Music, as it were, can do everything that cannot, in this case, be spoken. (p. 240)

Sandra Corse (1987) emphasizes the efficient shorthand of the monologue, “the words ‘my mind beats on’ substitute for an entire paragraph at the beginning of the story and a longer passage later in which Mann describes Aschenbach’s disturbed state of mind as the action begins” (p. 136). Another effect of this twist is that it polarizes artistic experience between a complete lack of meaningful language at the beginning of the opera and the exuberant prose that will come at the end of Act I. This juxtaposition highlights the missing element—that which will make possible the fleeting outburst of literary creation. Tadzio (who becomes the object of Aschenbach’s desire) is that inspirational element.

Rehearsal Number 2: Insomnia

“My mind beats on, my mind beats on. No sleep restores me.”

In his agitated state, Aschenbach cannot refresh himself with sleep as he had always done in the past. This brief phrase alludes to Mann’s passage in which Aschenbach “had sought but not found relaxation in sleep—though the wear and tear upon his system had come to make a daily nap more and more imperative” (p. 3). In the opera, “no sleep restores me” recalls the music of “no words come,” so much so that one almost gets the impression that he is suffering as much from insomnia as writer’s block: no words come, no sleep restores—because no sleep comes. In resisting sleep Aschenbach also resists involuntary sensual experiences associated with sleep. One of these pleasures, according to B.D. Lewin (1946), is the comfort and nurture associated with the maternal parent. Insomnia, in Lewin’s view, may be due to ambivalence toward the internalized mother. Bergler (1950/1992) makes a connection between the internal mother and creative writing as well. In describing the difference between the productive writer and the inhibited writer, he states that the latter “exhausts his psychic energy in the creation of … the defense mechanism of pseudo aggression (‘I refuse’ [ideas, words, milk])” (p. 114). The productive writer, however assumes a giving attitude, eliminating the internal mother by saying essentially, “I myself, autharchically, give ideas and words (milk).”

     In waiting for words to “come” Aschenbach places himself in the position of receiver in the dual relation giver-receiver, or symbolically, mother-child. He further complicates his situation by associating sensuousness with “mother.” Mann makes this association explicit, embellishing Aschenbach’s polarization between license and discipline by personifying the dualism in the forms of his mother and father. Aschenbach’s mother, the “daughter of a Bohemian musical conductor,” represents the passionate and excessively sensual, in contrast with his father, who exemplifies the self-controlled intellectual, “an upper official in the judicature” (p. 8). Aschenbach’s sense of strict discipline was thus an inheritance from his father’s side, and from his mother’s side he inherited (not thankfully) ardent impulsiveness. Mann very clearly connects the influence of Aschenbach’s parents with his creative writing, moving directly from their descriptions into an annotated inventory of Aschenbach’s works, all within the same paragraph.

     Sleep is also dangerous in that it represents a relaxation of inner barriers and an abandonment of self-control. Later in Scene 13, when Aschenbach finally drifts off and begins to dream, his repressed wish for uninhibited sensuality surfaces. He has an orgiastic nightmare so upsetting that it disturbs his rest, and thus the censorship apparatus fails. Dreams that wake the sleeper present a failure of Freud’s dreamwork to disguise disturbing wishes.

     The music also portrays this ambivalence with regard to sleep. A comparison of “My mind beats on … no sleep restores me” with the earlier “My mind beats on … and no words come” shows a reordering of pitches at the end that projects a stronger tonal telos. Instead of Db and Eb following the apex E and hanging undischarged, these pitches precede (in the guise of C# and D#) the apex E, sounding like scales steps la – ti – do. The juxtaposition of the two segments reveals an important exchange: in the earlier phrase, prominent motile pitch classes destabilize a fleeting reference to an E “tonic” and in the later phrase, fleeting motile pitches stabilize a more prominent E-centered tonality:

This exchange is similar to that found in chiastic figures in language, which transpose the relationship between syntactic elements. Take for example the sentence “If I see him I am a fool, and I am a fool if I don’t see him.” The second half of the sentence reverses the order of the clauses: conditional clause + main clause becomes main clause + negated conditional clause. Beyond mere reordering, a rhetorical twist provides a subtle, sometimes-ironic shift in chiastic figures. The negation of the conditional clause in the second half of the sentence above performs such a twist. As we heard earlier, Aschenbach’s language functions with chiastic grammatical patterning too, and reflects a similar sense of ironic cross purposes:

As Patrick J. Mahony (1987) has observed, chiastic patterning is typical of a number of Freud’s theories including projection and reversal into the opposite (pp. 98-100), each of which are characteristic of Aschenbach’s behavior later in the opera. In the case of projection, the subject misinterprets his mental activity as events occurring to him. Freud (1911/1958) formulates, “An internal perception is suppressed, and, instead, its content, after undergoing a certain degree of distortion, enters consciousness in the form of an external perception” (p. 66). For example, Aschenbach watches Tadzio, so Tadzio, he imagines, watches him:

Aschenbach’s voyeurism reverses into exhibitionism: in order for Tadzio to watch him, Aschenbach dresses up and uses cosmetics to make himself more visually attractive. In speaking of scopophilia reversing into exhibitionism (and sadism reversing into masochism), Freud (1915/1957) adds,

    With regard to both the instincts which we have just taken as examples, it should be remarked that their transformation by a reversal from activity to passivity and by a turning round upon the subject never in fact involves the whole quota of the instinctual impulse. The earlier active direction of the instinct persists to some degree side by side with its later passive direction, even when the process of its transformation has been very extensive. The only correct statement to make about the scopophilic instinct would be that all the stages of its development, its auto-erotic, preliminary stage as well as its final active or passive form, co-exist alongside one another. (p. 130)

Chiastic relations in psychological states are merely substitutive, however, and serve to prolong a condition rather than to change it.

Rehearsal Number 3-4: Delusion

“I, Aschenbach, famous as a master writer, successful, honoured, self-discipline my strength, routine the order of my days, imagination servant of my will.”

After several attempts, the music lands solidly but temporarily in a key, blurting out E major with a surprising change of texture. Spasms of accented strings, timpani rolls, and paired trumpets accompany Aschenbach in a fanfare as he sings “I Aschenbach…,” and E becomes linked with his “true identity,” the person he feels he has been and should be. The sense of being grounded in E soon gives way, though, when competition from D# and then F resumes. Aschenbach struggles against the competing pitch classes of the accompaniment, defending himself by loudly singing E for seven measures, only to succumb to the pressure. As Claire Seymore (2004) writes, “He may protest… but the Music of his repressed inner life will not be silenced” (p. 301). Rising in pitch from added tension, he moves up to F, dragging the entire accompaniment with him. He cannot maintain his tight-fisted self-control, however, and his melody eventually droops downward. One hears this musical flaccidity as a failure to maintain pitch on the words “strength” and “order,” as well as a total lack of any hint of E on “imagination.” He finally resumes the odd/even (black note/white note) pitch class oscillation (Ab-Bb ? B-A-G) on the words “servant of my will.” Though he finally settles into a key, Aschenbach’s stilted melody and awkward accompaniment does little to exploit the resources of tonality.

     In accessing the nature of creative barriers, Freud claims that when writers are too quick to repress ideas—and Aschenbach is all about “self-discipline,” “order,” and “control”—they find themselves unable to write.14 According to Freud (1913/1955), art exists as “an activity intended to allay ungratified wishes—in the first place in the creative artist himself and subsequently in his audience or spectators” (p. 187). Writing is thus a way to release powerful instincts and wishes, which the unconscious feels compelled to repress. Because the conscious judges these instincts to be unacceptable—based as they are on alarming erotic drives or death wishes—the act of writing becomes fraught with danger. The blocked writer, rather than sublimating these drives in writing, represses writing itself.

     A closer look at the operation of repression, then, will shed light on the root cause of Aschenbach’s writer’s block. Freud’s account of repression depends on a topographical formulation of the psychic apparatus that locates the operations of repression in a metaphorical physical space divided into conscious and unconscious regions. He likens these metaphorical regions to rooms of a house. An undesirable guest represents an impulse or thought barred from entrance to the drawing room of the conscious via a critical (repressive) guard, and is thereby banished to the anteroom of the unconscious. The undesirable guest/idea waits unaltered in the anteroom of the unconscious, and gives rise to other thoughts, capable through association of taking on extreme forms of expression. Freud’s formulation then leads him to metaphorical extensions, which liken repression to ordering an undesirable guest out of the drawing room or refusing to let him cross the threshold at all.

     This metaphor of room and guest calls to mind the Venice hotel room in which Aschenbach stays. As in Freud’s analogy, the room is a metaphor for a protected, private space, one in which Aschenbach can pursue his solitary writing and keep the distractions at bay. According to the Hotel Manager, who shows Aschenbach to his room, the picturesque and expansive view will help Aschenbach relax and write. The manager proudly directs Aschenbach to look out the window, singing “look Signore, the view!” above an emerging “View Theme.”

The music that represents the view also serves as a metaphor for unimpeded flow. A melody doubled in expansive octaves paced in easygoing, unhurried rhythm enhances the aural spaciousness. Lyric waves of large melodic leaps followed by descending streams of euphonious thirds flow over an accompaniment of sustained major sonorities—the musical “view” is unobstructed, unlike Aschenbach’s tortured phrases in the opening monologue.

Rehearsal Number 5: Identity Crisis

“My mind beats on, my mind beats on, why am I now at a loss?”

This section repeats the four-word fragment “My mind beats on” and the score indication of “come prima” sums it up: the music essentially begins as a repetition of the opening phrase, substituting “why am I now at a loss?” for “and no words come.” Other alterations—the omission of strings, a sustained pianissimo dynamic, and the shortening of the passage by one measure—facilitate a more seamless transition into the next section and hint that the next phrase will reveal the answer to Aschenbach’s query. Still bemoaning his inability to get words on paper, Aschenbach expands on the metaphoric expression, taking us from a linguistic loss to a subjective, more deeply personal loss of identity. From the beginning of the opera, when the words “my” and “mind” are connected via alliteration and assonance, we hear Aschenbach struggle to reassess his identity as a writer and his frustration with the chaotic thought processes that are preventing him from being meaningfully creative. Aschenbach’s novels are markers of his identity, and when his flow of words is threatened, his identity is also threatened. The drama that ensues centers around Aschenbach trying to do the impossible: to restore himself by diagnosing his own neurosis and treating his own writer’s block.

     Where the novella has the benefit of a narrator as a third-party analyst, the opera puts Aschenbach directly in charge of diagnosing his problem; he is both analyst and analysand. Yet one of the difficulties in diagnosing one’s own writer’s block stems from the role of the unconscious in the creative process — the phenomenon that Aschenbach refers to as “inspiration.” According to Bergler (1950/1992), “it is vain … to question the creating person himself about inspiration; the unconscious part of the act of creating. Even the most ingenious artists cannot do more than simply admit: ‘We are driven by forces beyond our conscious control’” (p. 6). Self-analysis not only fails to identify unconscious impulses, but it also misses the dialogue between the patient and analyst. Although Freud, like Aschenbach, performed self-analysis, he did report his findings in a series of letters to Wilhelm Fliess, who he placed in the role of a psychoanalyst substitute. Psychoanalysis, requiring the interaction of two human beings, resonates a theme in Mann’s oeuvre: the balance for obsessive passions is found in normal relations with other human beings.

     Like Freud writing letters to Fliess, Aschenbach captures his observations in written words. Rupprecht (2001, p. 246-47) makes the following observation about Aschenbach’s attempts to sort things out on his own:

    Moments of literary reflection set by Britten as recitative soliloquy are episodes in Aschenbach’s failed self-observation. The story’s tragic tone—and much of its fascination—comes down to this dramatization of a lack of self-knowledge.

The libretto suggests that Aschenbach perform these “moments of literary reflection” with his diary, as if the words of the recitative are the words he is writing down. Kennedy (1981) points out that as a writer, “this self-communing is his only articulate means of communication” (p. 254). Aschenbach sings his words in an almost speaking tone; the score provides only suggestions of pitches without rhythmic indications.15

In these recitatives, a solo piano punctuates Aschenbach’s reflective prose, and one could almost imagine that what we hear is Aschenbach accompanying himself at the piano. He half sings/half speaks a thought and then, while pausing to reflect, improvises a short fragment of piano music. He puzzles at the notes, trying one configuration and then the next, but never quite settling. The recitatives approximate the dialogue attempted by psychoanalysis, with separate voice lines alternating with piano lines over-lapping at most by a single eighth note. As Aschenbach writes in a diary to scrutinize his writing difficulties, we can almost picture him composing in order to examine the music of his thoughts. The opera’s Aschenbach-as-analyst persona thus presents a composite figure: an aural trace of the music analyst, performing a reduction at the piano, trying to isolate notes from the distractions of orchestration and meter; and a visual trace of the psychoanalyst, like Freud performing his self-analysis by taking copious notes of his dreams trying to isolate them from the distractions of secondary process; all wrapped up in a dramatic depiction of a writer struggling with writer’s block. Improvisation blurs into free association as singing blurs into speech. Despite the opera’s wealth of opportunities for Aschenbach to make sense of what is happening to him, however, he fails to assess his problem and even sinks more deeply into confusion.

Rehearsal Number 6: Denial

“I reject the words called forth by passion. I suspect the easy judgment of the heart—now passion itself has left me, and delight in fastidious choice.”

The abrupt change of texture and orchestration in this section suggests that we are on to a new topic (or at least Aschenbach thinks so!) as his illocution shifts from question to statement. In spite of the new texture, however, the retention of the harp flourishes from the previous section link these phrases so that they sound like an answer to his earlier question, “Why am I now at a loss?” One then hears the connection between effect (loss) and its cause (rejection/repression). As Aschenbach defines himself once again in the negative, (“I reject…”) he reveals his repression to us, if not to himself. Mitchell (1984) puts it this way: “Words fail him, because he has no language, no style, in which to make articulate the feelings that overwhelm him” (p. 240). So instead of using them, he pushes those feelings away.

     A scurrying accompaniment in pianissimo strings highlights Aschenbach’s heightened state of anxiety in this section. The violins begin with quick repeated notes that jump around in a jagged descent that manages to ricochet off all twelve tones. Reaching the low octave they reverse direction and ascend directly in “fastidious” whole-tone orderliness, reducing 12 tones to six. When the even-numbered pitch classes have been exhausted, though, the ascent switches to the odd-numbered ones, thus hitting all twelve tones again. Beneath the violins the lower strings repeat the sixteenths in reverse order, entering slightly later than do the violins, continuing in canon. At each high E, the harp descends in glissando and at each low E, the piano ascends in runs. The alternation of runs/glissandi in opposite directions acts to limit the outer boundaries of the strings’ notes. While this busy but harmonically stagnant duet repeats, Aschenbach’s first three phrases (“I reject… I suspect… now passion itself has left…”) ineffectually repeat the same melodic idea. A forte E moves to an accented F expressing the familiar tension, and with a limp descent, recaps in miniature the “I Aschenbach” section. The fourth phrase beginning “and delight” makes one final move from E up to F, now surprisingly more intense in the lower octave at a lower, piano dynamic. The frenetic activity of the accompaniment falters and dies out in response to Aschenbach’s meaningful pause on F. In these measures, Aschenbach again alludes to that opening metaphorical blend of heart and mind with “easy judgments of the heart;” only now, instead of a mind that beats like a heart, he imagines a heart that makes judgments like a mind.

Rehearsal Number 7: Melancholia

“My mind beats on, my mind beats on, and I am at an end.”

Aschenbach finishes his monologue as he began, performing his mental problem by repeating the opening words, come prima. This time, however, he resigns himself to fate as he fuses his opening words with the pseudo-retrograde (“taxing, tiring …”) version of the melody, and finally admits he is “at an end.” Even more than the “taxing, tiring” phrase, this line works to truly undo the opening phrase. Adding “my mind beats on … ” to the melodic inversion not only sounds like it’s reversing Aschenbach’s notes but also his words. It is quite striking and deflating to hear these very words, which have been repeated in a hampered ascent so many times, now descending.

III. Meta-analysis

Aschenbach’s expressive opening monologue uses rich metaphors to depict his writer’s block in essentially Freudian terms of repressed libidinal forces. With these images in mind, a closer look at the construction of metaphors and how they function both in language and music will help to interpret Aschenbach’s dilemma as it plays out in Britten’s opera. Recent theories of metaphor, generated from the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) suggest that we use conceptual metaphors––defined as a cognitive mapping between two different domains of thought––as a common and basic means of understanding (p. 15). For example, the conceptual metaphor COMMUNICATION IS SENDING16 uses the notion of conduit to produce meaning. Our understanding of conveying objects in containers maps onto our understanding of how meaning is contained in words, transmitted through communication, and received by a listener. According to Michael Reddy (1979) this metaphor leads to many of the expressions we use for talking about language. Some examples are: “It’s difficult to put my ideas into words,” “I gave you that idea,” and Aschenbach’s linguistic metaphor, “no words come.” Reddy also illustrates the shortcomings of the metaphor – the meaning constrained by the substitution – and the difficulties of thinking of communication with other metaphoric images.17

     Conceptual metaphors make use of even more familiar structures that are grounded in cognitive summaries of repeated patterns of physical experience, which Johnson (1987) calls image schemata. Image schemata provide a link between perception and language, by summing up physical experience in a cognitive unit that can be used for defining other ideas.18 Ex. 3 illustrates several uses of the CONDUIT metaphor using three of Johnson’s image schemata, force, container and source—path—goal: a force propels a container to flow along a path from source to a goal. Ex. 3a illustrates COMMUNICATION IS SENDING in which as the force of sending propels words from one person to another.19 The rest of the example illustrates other uses of the CONDUIT metaphor to help structure the notions mentioned earlier of heart (Ex. 3b), with its diastolic and systolic forces that produce blood flow, and mind (Ex. 3c), entailing phrases like “stream of consciousness” or the “flow of thoughts.”

Ex. 3a-d: Elaborations of the Conduit Metaphor

The CONDUIT metaphor even structures some of our musical metaphors as well. As Ex. 3d suggests, we often talk of music that “flows” and “converges” on a cadence, and we identify rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic forces that direct that flow. Consider Rupprecht’s (2001) description of Aschenbach’s exclamation “I love you” in Scene 7: "Such force of utterance comes about by a dense confluence of returning themes, and as the culmination of the scene’s wider harmonic and rhythmic energies" (pp. 276-77). His use of the term “confluence” suggests that themes move and “flow,” and the idea that many themes can “converge together” evokes the image of tributaries joining into a larger waterway. He also describes the “harmonic and rhythmic energies” or FORCES that impel the flow. All of these notions help to structure a coherent conceptual metaphor MUSIC IS A STREAM.20 In writing about melody, Brian Hyer (2002) suggests that we rely on two main metaphorical images, lines and streams in conceptualizing melodies:

    In contrast to linear metaphors, which encourage us to view melodies out of time as linear contours that exist all at once at a given moment, stream metaphors communicate a sense of fluid, ongoing motion toward a goal. In the course of this advance toward the [goal], however, melodic motion is never even or continuous, but rather ebbs and flows, like the tide: melodies swirl into eddies at some moments—pools in which melodies seem to lose momentum or even stagnate—or surge forward at others. (p. 4)

The CONDUIT schema allows us to structure the sense of dynamic fluid motion suggested by the rich-image stream metaphors Hyer discusses. The temporal nature of its image-schematic SOURCE-PATH-GOAL gestalt facilitates the dynamic, active image of the melodic stream. The contiguous points of the PATH aid in constructing notions of fluidity and directed motion. The energetic properties of the various forms of the FORCE schema can structure notions of ebbing and flowing.

     Harvey Nash (1963) further underscores metaphor’s role in explaining unfamiliar situations. He argues that metaphoric thinking has always been used in psychological theorizing, and rather than being unscientific, actually has many virtues in forming new theories.

    By metaphoric thinking we mean that a novel experience is likened to a familiar one, that the theorist suggests a similarity between a problem under study and a situation with which he is already closely acquainted. Communication of ideas is facilitated by figurative thinking, in science as in poetry. However, metaphor has served other, more significant functions in science: it has helped generate theory, whose structure and origins may then be illuminated by root-metaphor analysis. The history of psychological theory and of science generally is full of examples of metaphoric thinking: Locke’s tabula rasa, the mechanical psychologies of Hobbes and Hartley, and Lorenz’ imprinting, to name a few. (p. 338)

Nash goes on to elaborate by example the metaphor of fluid flow used by psychoanalytic thinkers, resulting in phrases like “stream of consciousness.” He cites the naturalistic use of fluid metaphors by William McDougall, who uses images of springs, rivers, erosion, tributaries, and drainage systems to describe character and the sentiments. Then he goes on to discuss Freud’s (1905/1953) fluid metaphors, noting, for instance, that Freud talks about the parts of the psyche using terms like stream and reservoir: “the libido [having failed to obtain satisfaction along normal lines] behaves like a stream whose main bed has become blocked. It proceeds to fill up collateral channels which may hitherto have been empty” (p. 170). This wording allows Freud to capture the continuous nature of the libido “spring,” as well as the impossibility of containing the outflow from that spring, even when some obstruction, such as repression, bars or blocks its motion. He suggests that there is enough force or pressure behind the flow to overcome obstacles in order to make diversions possible. Freud’s fluid metaphors depend on his dynamic model of the unconscious. This model, often called “hydraulic” by interpreters, articulates a conceptual metaphor: THE PSYCHE IS A STREAM.

IV. Synthesis

Lawrence Zbikowski (2002) has taken recent developments in cognitive linguistics like those described above and applied them to musical concerns.21 He employs conceptual integration networks to depict the cognitive process by which a listener might combine perceptions of music and text to create meaning beyond that of the text alone, in a way that is analogous to the creation of new meaning in metaphorical blends. Ex. 4 shows a conceptual integration network for Aschenbach’s monologue. The text and music input spaces on the left and right of the diagram appear as correlates which share the structures listed in the generic space above. The blended space is a projection of the entire network, and the conceptual activity is represented by the arrows depicting mappings between the spaces. These mappings are dynamic, and therefore the model is merely a “snapshot” of the conceptual activity. The following discussion will describe the elements in the network, as well as how they interact, recapping the observations of Aschenbach’s symptoms from the beginning of this article. I will start with the two input spaces, music and text, and then observe the underlying structures they have in common listed in the generic space. I will conclude with observations on how the commonalities facilitate a blend of text-music concepts.

Ex. 4: Conceptual Integration Network for the opening monologue of Death in Venice

Music Space: Several layers of musical syntax work together in the first section of the monologue to express Aschenbach’s condition: pulsating winds accumulate unresolved harmonies (Tristan, F7), a hampered vocal ascent, and an inability to establish E tonal center. In addition, a swelling, circuitous melody, ends in tremolos, and harp/piano runs toggle odd/even pitch classes eventually cuts off leaving abrupt silence. These elements continue into the second section (“taxing, tiring…”) with the additional feature: original vs. inverted (pseudo-retrograded) 12-note melody. These sections repeat additional statements of “My mind beats on…” and variations of the 12-note melody, articulating the following feature of the music space: obsessive refrains. Two contrasting episodes temporarily break out of the grind of hampered ascents and descents: episode. 1: false fanfare dissonates E, F, Eb and episode 2: anxious canon pits E-D# against vocal E-F.

Text Space: A solid double-headed arrow in the CIN connects this space with the music space depicting the two spaces as analogous inputs in the network. Each of the points in the music space correlate with points in the text space that the following discussion details. Aschenbach’s body/mind metaphor evokes sensuous somatic notions of heartbeats and sexuality, revealing unacceptable libidinal drives that he must repress. It is clear that Aschenbach’s loss is a painful struggle, and he describes it in dramatic and emotional terms: “passion” and “delight” have “left.” Aschenbach expresses his creative impotence by complaining of a loss of words: “no words come.” His language itself exhibits symptoms of this block with monosyllabic disconnected words and disintegrating sentences related in reciprocal grammatical structures that result in no linguistic gain. Expressing his dilemma using negation helps us hear Aschenbach’s repression: and his efforts are “unyielding” and “unproductive.” “No words come” and “no sleep restores” him. We hear the connection between Aschenbach’s loss and the cause of that loss – repression – with phrases that articulate rejection vs. passionate impulses. Aschenbach piles up repeated clauses and obsessive refrains: his activities are taxing and tiring, unyielding and unproductive. He characterizes himself by using related and even redundant words: fame, success, and honour; self-discipline, routine, and order. The refrain “my mind beats on” acts anaphorically to summon the image of obsession through the sheer weight of repetition as well. The phrase performs its ongoing beating by appearing twice at the beginning of each of four sentences. As it continually draws us back to rehearse Aschenbach’s blockage, the clauses that follow each refrain explain the symptoms of the block. Their parallel structure helps to summon the repetitive patterns and rehearse the fixation as well: “no words come” and “no sleep restores;” he is “at a loss” and “at an end.” While Aschenbach realizes he is stuck, he is also demonstrates lack of self-awareness as the psychological cause of his problems. Though he tries to reassert his identity with “I Aschenbach…,” he also admits his confusion “why am I now at a loss?”

Generic Space: The arrows leading upward from both input spaces remind us that text and music inputs hold certain structures in common. The arrows leading back downward from the generic space into the inputs represent the focus of thought on those common structures. Here, these structures include notions of beating expressed in both the text and music heard in the winds as relentless erratic pulses. The music space suggests tonal and serial processes that become inhibited, while the text space suggests a linguistic flow that succumbs both semantically and syntactically to constraints expressing symptoms of blockage, frustrated directed relations, and constriction. These blocks result in no forward flow, either musically or linguistically, thus no gain. Furthermore, ambivalent forces set up these blocks. Motions to and from E and opposing row forms work against each other in the music, and images of Aschenbach asserting control vs. those that undo that control alternate in the text, exhibiting the relation force vs. counter-force. Repetition in the form of refrains in both text and music act to suggest the continually renewed pressure that constricts musical/linguistic streams, blocking directed relations, resulting in no forward flow, thus renewed force generates repeated blocks. Both spaces also share a sense of bafflement or perplexity articulated in the text by “why am I now at a loss?” and in the music by the unsure fanfare and frenzied canon.

     The conceptual metaphors and image schemata that underlie Freud’s topographical theories on inhibition and writer’s block can provide more detail for the generic space. In Freud’s view, the creative writer relaxes his critical function and allows thoughts to flow into awareness evoking the conceptual metaphor CREATIVITY IS A STREAM. Ex. 5 diagrams the notion of creativity using the CONDUIT metaphor to show how ideas flow from the unconscious to the conscious.

Ex. 5: Creativity using the CONDUIT metaphor

Creative blocks are caused by rejecting unconscious wishes too quickly and severely, and by keeping them suppressed via repression. A repressing agency rejects from consciousness a stimulus that takes the form of anxiety. Two quanta of energy animate the mechanism: a cathexis invigorates the repressed impulse that strives for release, and a counter-cathexis fortifies the repressing agency that strives to hold back the impulse from consciousness. Ex. 6 diagrams Johnson’s COUNTERFORCE schema depicting two opposing forces head to head that underlies Freud’s notion of cathexis and counter-cathexis.

Ex. 6: Johnson’s COUNTERFORCE schema

Freud (1933/1964) further writes: “to the repressed we must rather ascribe a strong upward-driving force, and impulsion to get through to consciousness” (p. 68). Ex. 7a reorients the CONDUIT and COUNTERFORCE schemas in line with Freud’s notion of an upward-driving force and counter-cathexis in order to depict the mechanism of repression in writer’s block. An upward-pointing solid arrow represents a repressed libidinous impulse, which manifests itself as anxiety and seeks entry into consciousness. A downward-pointing solid arrow represents the counterforce of repression. The two opposing forces cause a block, represented by the constricting circle, and impede the flow of thoughts from the unconscious to the conscious. Because the conscious has judged the original impulse unacceptable and associated it with the act of writing, writing itself becomes dangerous and the flow of creativity stops. This is not just a one-time event but one which requires a continual renewal of repression, or what Freud (1926/1959) calls “repressure.” This repressure is necessary to disguise derivatives of the repressed idea in order to avoid their involuntary irruption into consciousness. These repetitions appear in the diagram as dashed arrows. Since the blocked writer is powerless to diagnose and treat his writer’s block himself because of the role of the unconscious in the process, so the repetitive process is bound to continue.

Ex. 7a: Repression and writer’s block

Exs. 7b and 7c diagram the isomorphic structures shared by music and text inputs, including the COUNTERFORCE and BLOCKAGE schemas and the conduit metaphor (SOURCE-PATH-GOAL, CONTAINER, and FORCE) that characterize musical and linguistic streams in the monologue, as well as psychoanalytical notions of writer’s block.

Ex. 7b: Blockage in music

Ex. 7c: Blockage in text

     Blended space: Rich shared structures in the text and music spaces compose notions of Aschenbach’s inhibited state in the blended space summarized in the CIN in Ex. 4. Arrows depict how conceptual activity directs notions from the inputs into this blend as thought unfolds. Some elements of the blend are fairly self-evident. The Tristan quote, for example, is an overt reference to other music, and thus it is easy to connect the dots between music and meaning. One might ask, though, how other music supports the blend. How is it that we hear the wind sounds, for example, as “impending” and “personal”? Zbikowski (2003) suggests that shared image-schematic structure between musical materials and events or situations allows for musical representation of non-musical ideas or events. He refers to the notion of an icon, which in the semiotic sense is a sign that signifies by virtue of sharing a property with what it represents, such as a straight line on a map representing a straight road. He suggests, “[R]epresenting the image-schematic structure of some event or situation through musical materials is somewhat like the iconicity of rhetorical figures” (p. 14). He further draws on Turner’s discussion of a literary passage about repeated blows in which the rhetorical figure of anaphora – repeated word or words at the beginning of successive clauses – shares structure with the passage’s meaning. According to Turner, “Involving members of the audience in the image schema of the iconic form automatically involves them in the basic structure of the meaning, thus moving them part way toward accepting the whole” (as cited in Zbikowski, 2003, p. 14). The refrain repetitions of the monologue similarly move us toward accepting the ongoing and obsessive nature of Aschenbach’s dilemma.

     Zbikowski also describes the cause and effect relation between sounds and physical events or gestures that create sounds. In our experience, certain motions or states imply that a sound will be made, while certain sounds imply that a sound-generating event has happened (clapping hands imply clapping sounds and vice versa). Because of the cause-and-effect relation between sound and gesture, the two become compressed in our thinking about them. He articulates the possibilities that arise when the two are actually disassociated from one another, or “decompressed.” The ability to mix and match sounds with other types of motions or states creates rich possibilities for meaning. “Being able to manipulate sound in this way — that is, treating sounds as entities that can be mapped onto a variety of physical events or gestures — is something that is basic to making music” (Zbikowski, 2003, p.16). In order to successfully recompress a sound with a new gesture, there needs to be shared image-schematic correlations. The more correlations present, the easier the compressions are to make. Soft sounds, like those of the paired winds in the beginning of the monologue for example, can have correlations with perceptions of distance, employing the image schema NEAR-FAR. We can either think of them as close, because the sounds are so soft that we can only hear them if we are very nearby, or we can think of them as far away because the sheer distance attenuates the sound’s volume. Usually other perceptual cues help us decide between these two options.

     For example, the isolated figure of Aschenbach’s character onstage and the winds’ dependence for pitch on the direction of his melody notes, make the softness of the pulsating rhythms seem very close and personal to him. It is not surprising then that when we blend the music and text of the first phrase, we easily hear these sounds as the beating of his mind. Even though we do not (normally!) hear the sounds of thoughts within someone else’s head, there are enough embodied correlations with our physical experience — the feeling of throbbing temples, imagined vocal sounds in our thoughts — to allow the imaginary projection of Aschenbach’s mind making the noises we hear. So when the winds crescendo it is that much more alarming. Since they repeat their rhythms non-stop, one imagines that the crescendo will also continue indefinitely. Because we have established these sounds as interior to Aschenbach, we know this cannot be a distant quiet sound getting louder due to its generating body coming closer, but rather an already close sound getting intolerably loud.

     The shared structures of music and text similarly allow for a blend that intensifies our experience of Aschenbach’s writer’s block as shown in the CIN in Ex. 4. Again, certain key points in the input spaces share generic structures that facilitate the blend. Conceptual activity composes the shared elements of relentless erratic pulses into erotic impulses. One senses immediately how disturbing this is to him when we hear his symptoms of writer’s block, primarily a lack of creative output. More than a mere neutralization of productivity, though, the text/music blend portrays the build-up of pressure and the inhibition is heard as constriction and intensification. The absence of music that follows phenomenalizes his negative expression in a way that is almost more alarming than the pressured beating of his mind as silence enacts the loss of words. The opposing musical forces that support the meaning of “I reject…” move us to accept that Aschenbach’s libidinous and creative impulses meet with repression, and that these reversals cause a block in the flow of his stream of consciousness. The repetitions of the beating refrain poignantly reinforce the useless ongoing nature of Aschenbach’s dilemma as repressure renews the futile struggle. Blocked writing though, a mere symptom of a personal disintegration, leads to an identity crisis, and Aschenbach questions his false sense of identity, but his self-analysis fails.

     Through the operation of image completion, we can add information to the blend that comes from our general knowledge and experience of similar events. This is where armchair analysts can place Aschenbach on the couch, diagnose his symptoms, and find out what is bothering him. His disorder seems to be characterized by symptoms of disturbed thinking, a separation between intellect and emotions, and disturbances in the sense of identity. He expresses himself in stilted, disorganized clauses and disrupted syntax, referring to bodily organs in order to explain his mental state. Freud (1915/1957) describes this last symptom as “organ-speech” and attributes all of these symptoms to disorders like schizophrenia. He describes further symptoms as follows:

    In schizophrenia, words are subjected to the same process as that which makes the dream-images out of latent dream-thoughts — to what we have called the primary psychical process. They undergo condensation, and by means of displacement transfer their cathexes to one another in their entirety. The process may go so far that a single word, if it is specially suitable on account of its numerous connections, takes over the representation of a whole train of thought. (p. 199)

In the opera, the name “Tadzio” becomes a condensed representation of the nature Freud describes, but even here in the monologue certain short words substitute for entire trains of thought. 22 Consider the richness of images wrapped up in the “beats” of Aschenbach’s mind; this metaphorical figure encapsulates multivalent somatic, psychosexual, linguistic, and artistic meanings.

     We can also elaborate the blend of text and music with imaginative possibilities based on the logic and principles already in the blend. Needless to say, because the monologue is not a self-contained piece but rather the beginning of an entire opera, Britten and Piper have already made these elaborations for us, but I offer here a few examples as demonstration. As in the case of image completion, one can draw on Freudian theory to further elaborate the future possibilities of blend. Having noticed symptoms of schizophrenia in the completion phase of the blend, we might imagine that other symptoms would arise: a retreat from social interaction into fantasy life, hallucinations, and regression; all of which happen later in the opera. Furthermore, looking ahead to some psychological condition that might change the status quo of Aschenbach’s blocked state, we could consider Freud’s (1938/1964) conditions under which repressed material can overcome repressive forces:

    The repressed material retains its impetus to penetrate into consciousness. It reaches its aim when three conditions are present: (1) When the strength of counter-cathexis is diminished by an illness … or through a different distribution of cathexis in the Ego, as happens regularly during sleep. (2) When those instincts attached to the repressed material become strengthened. The process during puberty provides the best example for this. (3) Whenever recent events produce impressions or experiences which are so much like the repressed material that they have the power to awaken it. Thus the repressed and the repressed material produces its effect behind the recent material and with its help. (p. 95)

One can imagine all three of these conditions to be possibilities for Aschenbach. (1) He might at some point actually fall asleep and relax the counter-cathexis in the ego that enforces repression; in fact, he does just that later in the opera when he has his Dionysian dream, and certainly it is musically and dramatically clear that this moment presents a release of repressed desires. (2) A middle-aged man, Aschenbach is so preoccupied with his lost youth that we are not surprised when he begins to regress to a more childlike state: luxuriating in the sensuous pleasure of sound, isolating himself from adult interaction, and wearing cosmetics to disguise his age. Aschenbach has a youthful artistic experience not unlike the “vision-making” of adolescence in which repressed erotic feelings are strengthened. (3) Since we already expect that the repressed material is of a libidinous nature, an experience similar enough to the repressed material could awaken the impulse. Such an experience does in fact happen right after the opening monologue in the form of Aschenbach’s hallucination full of thinly veiled sexual images — swollen wild growth, naked roots, and a steaming marsh. Enhanced by references to Tristan, one can draw parallels with Wagner’s opera and imagine that Aschenbach’s repression indeed fails and he loses himself in eroticism, and eventually, in death.

V. At an end

As his refrain “beats on,” Aschenbach’s melody mimics the diastolic and systolic motions of a strained heart, focusing on the labored pumping rather than its flow of blood. These phrases beat again and again in a rhythmic refrain that circumvents any motion to a musical goal, and we are left with the aural sense of tightly constricted blockage. Mann provides us with a similar image of stricture in his depiction of Aschenbach’s personality in the novella.

    A nice observer once said of [Aschenbach] in company … “You see, Aschenbach has always lived like 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.(p. 9)

We can add Mann’s physical image of a fist to the cluster of circulatory and sexual images within the opera’s opening metaphor with which Aschenbach expresses his writer’s block, and find that it is indeed consistent with those images. Anatomical descriptions of the human heart liken cardiac muscles—which wrap around the heart’s core, pumping blood from the heart chambers—to a fist that contracts to squirt water from a balloon. Whether we imagine the beating of the heart muscle contracting like the muscles of a hand around its core, though, or just a fist clenching a pen in frustration, Britten lets us hear Aschenbach’s vain attempt to get a “grip” on his creative problem. As music and text wrap around Aschenbach’s opening monologue, tortured grammar, ambiguous tonal motions, inverted melodies, and unresolved harmonies project the writer’s block that initiates Aschenbach’s journey to Venice and the loss of language that plagues him to his journey’s end.




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End Notes

1 Psychoanalytical readings of Britten’s Death in Venice in general, and the opening monologue specifically, are surprisingly few and far between. More attention has been paid to other Britten works, such as Peter Grimes (H. Keller, 1946/1995) and Billy Budd (B. Emslie, 1992). While most of the standard references to Death in Venice discuss the psychological issues of creative inhibition and repressed homosexuality, as well as the mythological (Apollonian/Dionysian) components of the conflict, they stop short of “putting Aschenbach on the couch” in a systematic way. As far as I know the present article is the only analysis of the introductory monologue using the lens of writer’s block. For valuable discussions of the opening monologue from other approaches, see P. Evans (1979) pp. 526-528, Whittall (1982) p. 261, White (1983) p. 269, J. Evans (1987) pp. 99-102, S. Corse (1987) pp. 137-138, S. Corse and L. Corse (1989) pp. 347-350, Seymour (2004) pp. 300-301, and Travis (1987) pp. 130-140, among others.
As for writer’s block and the novella, I mention in the section on Rehearsal Number 1 that Mann’s novella does not present Aschenbach’s problem in terms of writer’s block at all, but rather casts Aschenbach as suffering from some kind of writer’s burnout. Even so, Freudian readings of the novella abound (and in fact Mann himself called his story a mix of “myth plus psychology”), but again, for reasons stated above, none of the essays approach the novella via writer’s block.

2  In this article, the German title Der Tod in Venedig refers to Mann’s novella and the English title Death in Venice refers to Britten’s opera.

2  Since most productions include very little action on stage during the monologue, I will be addressing issues of text and music alone without references to stage action.

3  Since most productions include very little action on stage during the introductory monologue, I will be addressing issues of text and music alone without references to stage action.

4  Peter Pears sings Aschenbach on this 1973 English Chamber Orchestra recording of Britten’s Death in Venice. The Decca Record Company Limited, London 425 669-2.

5  This metaphor is particularly poignant in view of Britten’s precarious health at the time of writing Death in Venice. In August of 1972, while working on the opera, he was diagnosed with a serious heart condition. In 1973, immediately after completion of the opera, he underwent an operation to replace a failing heart valve, preventing him from attending the opera’s premiere. Though the operation was successful, Britten suffered a slight stroke that affected his right hand and inhibited his ability to compose. He slowly recovered enough to continue composing for a time, but he took a turn for the worse and eventually died on December 3, 1976, from his heart condition. Some writers further attribute to Britten’s illness an impending doom that made work on Death in Venice even more resonant. Kennedy (1981) suggests that because of his upcoming operation, “Britten had experienced Aschenbach’s fear that inspiration had dried up” (p. 255).

6  The chart reflects the current practice in cognitive linguistics in which metaphor is defined in terms of mappings between domains of thought (“cross-domain mapping”) where the understanding of a more familiar domain (in this case the physical) helps to build understanding of a less familiar domain (mental). (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980)

7  Comparing these erratic articulations in the winds with the leisurely termolando that initiates Tadzio’s theme later in the opera leads me to believe that they are different versions of the same impulse, the first – halting and frenzied – resulting from Aschenbach’s tight-fisted control, and the second – smooth and calming – occurring after he relaxes in Venice.

8  My thanks go to Peter Westergaard for pointing out that the pattern also mimics “beating” in sailing terms, which is to tack back and forth in order to make progress against the wind.

9 Wordsworth invokes the natural metaphor that underlies Evans’ “parched creativity” in writing about blockage: “—but not I build; no, but strain, Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes, Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain.” (Cited in Leader 1991, p. 10.)

10 The focus here on “no” words reflects a kind of quantitative writer’s block. Later in the opera, we get the sense there may also be a qualitative writer’s block – caused by the anxiety that what is written must also be “good.” When Aschenbach does finally write a page and a half of prose, he says he will “write what the world waits for,” and then later reflects, “What I wrote was good, quite what was expected of me; to the point, yet poignant” (Act 2, Scene 7).

11  This distinction brings to mind two meanings of “writer’s cramp.” The term generally means a pain in the hand due to too much writing, but was also used by Otto Fenichel (1945) and a few others to signify a writing inhibition. See Leader (1991) p. 254 n.7.

12  Leader (1991) traces the development of the term “writer’s block” (p. 1-30).

13  For the present study – and in the interest of space – I will concentrate mainly on Freud’s notions of creative inhibition since they relate directly to Mann’s text, but possibilities exist for more synthesis with recent work done on writer’s block. For example, the study could be expanded to look at real writers and their struggles with blockage. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Kafka, and many others have written about their experiences. Ruitenbeek (1965) contains a number of psychoanalytical essays about famous writers: the Brontë sisters, Goethe, Proust, etc. Other authors expand on the Freudian model, such as Kris (1952) and still others offer post-Freudian psychological approaches to writing such as Kellogg (1994). Approaches from other perspectives abound as well, such as cognitive (Rose, 1984) and neurological (Flaherty, 2004).

14  The theme of inflexibility resulting in blockage carries into more recent work on writer’s block as well. Michael Rose (1984), for one, identifies several cognitive problems associated with writer’s block including the application of rigid, or incorrect rules of composition (p. 4).

15  Britten chose this quasi speech/song style (instead of straight speech) to simulate thinking out loud after hearing Pears sing passages from Schütz that were pitched but rhythmically free. For further discussion, see J. Evans (1985, p.31) and P. Evans (1979, p. 528).

16  By convention, after Lakoff and Johnson, conceptual metaphors are placed in upper-case type to distinguish them from linguistic metaphors.

17  Similarly, the metaphor that underlies the notion of writer’s block constrains meaning as well. Leader makes the point that to think of oneself as blocked is to shift responsibility away from the self, and thus the problem stems not from lack of substance but rather from an obstacle or impediment.

18  Ironically, conceptual metaphors, which are expressed commonly in literature as linguistic metaphors and which Aschenbach as a novelist would have been adept at manipulating, depend on generic structures rooted in patterns of physical perception and sensation (according to metaphor theory). This sensuous basis, though, is just what Aschenbach is trying to repudiate; he uses artistic isolation to escape sensual over-stimulation. He rejects all but only the purely logical. Rather than relying on familiar bodily experiences to organize the abstract, he approaches it the other way, using the intellectual — unsuccessfully — to organize and constrain the physical.

19  Symbols are drawn in part from Saslaw (1996).

20  For further discussion of the image schemata involved in stream metaphors, see Saslaw (1996)

21  See G. Fauconnier and M. Turner (1998) for an introduction to Conceptual Integration Networks.

22  For a detailed discussion of “Tadzio” as a condensed representation, see S. Johnson 2005.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Shersten Johnson "At a Loss for Words: Writer's Block in Britten's Death in Venice". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: December 31, 2007, Published: March 3, 2008. Copyright © 2008 Shersten Johnson