He was caught in the enchantment of a sacredly distorted world full of Panic life — and he dreamed delicate legends.
Nothing is stranger and more delicate than the relationship between people who know each other only with their eyes, who meet daily, even hourly, and yet are compelled, by force of custom of their own caprices, to say no word or make no move of acknowledgment, but to maintain the appearance of an aloof unconcern. There is a restlessness and a surcharged curiousity existing between them, the hysteria of an unsatisfied, unnaturally repressed desire for acquaintanceship and interchange; and especially there is a kind of tense respect. Because one person loves and honors another so long as he cannot judge him, and desire is a product of incomplete knowledge.
For beauty, my Phaedrus, beauty alone is both lovely and visible at once; it is, mark me, the only form of the spiritual which we can receive through the senses. Else what would become of us if the divine, if reason and virtue and truth, shoudl appear to us through the sense? Should we not perish and be consumed with love, as Semele once was with Zeus? Thus, beauty is the sensitive man’s access to the spirit — but only a road, a means simply, little Phaedrus. . . . And then this crafty suitor made the neatest remark of all; it was this, that the lover is more divine than the beloved, since the god is in the one, but not in the other — perhaps the most delicate, the most derisive thought that has ever been framed, and the one from which spring all the cunning and the profoundest pleasures of desire.
“Tadziu! Tadziu!” He turned back; beating the resistent water into a foam with his legs, he hurried, his head bent down over the waves. And to see how this vital figure, virginally graceful and unripe, with dripping curls, and lovely as some slender god, came up out of the depths of sky and sea, rose and separated from the elements — this spectacle aroused a sense of myth, it was like some poet’s recovery of time at its beginning, of the origin of forms and the birth of gods. Aschenbach listened with closed eyes to this song ringing within him, and he thought again that it was pleasant here, and that he would like to remain.
The experiences of a man who lives alone and in silence are both vaguer and more penetrating than those of people in society; his thoughts are heavier, more odd, and touched always with melancholy. Images and observations which could easily be disposed of by a glance, a smile, an exchange of opinion, will occupy him unbearably, sink deep into the silence, grow full of meaning, become life, adventure, emotion. Loneliness brings forth what is original, daring, and shockingly beautiful: the poetic. But loneliness also brings forth the perverse, the disproportionate, the absurd, and the illicit.
There was silence. The oar splashed, the water thudded against the bow. And the talking and whispering began again. The gondolier was talking to himself between his teeth.
What was to be done? This man was strangely insolent, and had an uncanny decisiveness; the traveler, alone with him on the water, saw no way of getting what he wanted. And besides, how softly he could rest, if only he did not become excited! Hadn’t he wanted the trip to go on and on forever? It was wisest to let things take their course, and the main thing was that he was comfortable. The poison of inertia seemed to be issuing from the seat, from his low, black-upholstered armchair, so gently cradled by the oar strokes of the imperious gondolier behind him. The notion that he had fallen into the hands of a criminal passed dreamily across Aschenbach’s mind — without the ability to summon his thoughts to an active defense. The possibility that it was all simply a plan for cheating him seemed more abhorrent. A feeling of duty or pride, a kind of recollection that one should prevent such things, gave him the strength to arouse him once more. He asked: “What are you asking for the trip?”
Looking down upon him, the gondolier answered: “You will pay.”
It was plain how this should be answered. Aschenbach said mechanically: “I shall pay nothing, absolutely nothing, if you don’t take me where I want to go.”
“You want to go to Lido.”
“But not with you.”
“I am rowing you well.”
That is so, Aschenbach thought, and relaxed. That is so; you are rowing me well. Even if you do have designs on my cash, and send me down to Pluto with a blow of your oar from behind, you will have rowed me well.
“Yes, I shall stay,” Aschenbach thought. “Where would things be better?” And, his hands folded in his lap, he let his eyes lose themselves in the expanses of the sea, his gaze gliding, blurring, and failing in the monotone mist of the wilderness of space. He loved the ocean for deep-seated reasons: because of that yearning for rest, when the hard-pressed artist hungers to shut out the exacting multiplicities of experience and seek refuge on the breast of the simple, the vast; and because of a forbidden hankering — seductive, by virtue of its being directly opposed to his obligations — after the inarticulate, the boundless, the eternal, sheer nothing. To be at rest in the face of perfection is the hunger of everyone who is aiming at excellence; and what is nothingness if not a form of perfection?