Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Harbinger of my Death in the Form of a Young Woman

    Gustav von Aschenbach is not Huck Finn or Jake Barnes or even Humbert Humbert.
     But he is one of the great characters of literature, little known though he may be.
     The protagonist of Thomas Mann's 1912 novella, "Death in Venice," he arrives in that hot, cholera-ridden city, to sit in his hotel lobby and bathe at the Lido, where he falls in love with Tadzio, an adolescent boy he glimpses on the beach. He could leave but doesn't, hanging around to ogle the lad, and is punished. Good to the title's promise —spoiler alert!—he dies at the book's end.
      Usually when I think of Gustav, I think in terms of his struggle to look young, under the spell of his infatuation, letting a barber dye his hair, rouge his cheeks, looking of course more aged and frightening and death-bound afterward than he had before. 
      I can't tell if "Death in Venice" is a joy to read for anybody who picks it up, or I just was lucky enough to read it under the tutelage of Erich Heller, that great German scholar at Northwestern University. It has been 35 years—more—but I can still hear Heller explaining the death symbolism that appears in the book. The gondolier—"I will row you well"—of course is Charon, the oarsman on the River Styx. And the strikingly snub-nosed foreigner in the graveyard, staring at him, seeming to rest with his walking stick propped against his hip, one leg crossed over the other? That pose, evoking the classical allegorical Death, makes him the Grim Reaper with scythe, resting in between his endless harvest of souls. Or so Heller told us.
      I can't say that reading "Death in Venice" sensitized me to death imagery, or whether I was predisposed to be that sort of person anyway. I'm not exactly free and easy. But let a large black crow settle on the ground in front of me, and cast me a pitying look. I feel a chill. Or a large, dusty moth flutter up from somewhere and throw shadows around a bare bulb. It seems a portent. Particularly the crows.  
      Even at the strangest moment. I was heading home early Wednesday, to catch the 3:55, after a day studying up on World War I — the centennial approaches.  Maybe all that trench slaughter put me in the mood. But one glance at the back of this young woman's dress was enough. It struck me immediately. I diverted from my path to the train, followed her, squeezing off a few photos, and was about to approach her and ... say what?
     "Excuse me, miss, but is that really a memento mori woven into the lace of your dress?"
     "I've seen skulls on socks and caps, but is that a skull on the back of your dress?"
      "Would that be the noseless one, to use Jack London's phrase, or am I just projecting my own morbid fears upon your outfit?"
      And how would that be received? It would not be received well, would it? Remarks from older gentlemen upon the clothing choices of young women, acquainted or unacquainted—especially unacquainted—are neither wise nor welcome. She'd probably squirt one of those little purse-sized Mace sprays in my face.
      Or  what if I were right? I never saw her face. What if I hurried up to meet her, fell into step alongside, put on my best, disarming smile, and turned to address her... 
    Because I could not stop for Death -
    He kindly stopped for me -
    Or she, in this case.
    What if, only then did I see a face that truly was a skull, hidden by her hair, the skin shrunken and taut, like brown parchment, like a Peruvian mummy, the sockets dark, empty, the mouth already opening, to flash its hideous grin, a rictus smile as it came in for that unwanted final kiss? What then? 
      "That man just collapsed beside me. He opened his mouth, as if to say something, then fell over. I think he's dead..."
     I slowed my gait, did a gentle 180 degree turn and headed for the train, feeling both relieved and cowardly. What would be the purpose of a dress like that? Who would buy it? It can't be intentional, right?  Just pattern recognition, like seeing the face in an electrical outlet. Her hair, covering up the rest of the pattern, that would obliterate the skull. Yeah, that's it.
     The sky was overcast but no longer gloomy. I reached Union Station, lost in thought, went down the stairs. No sulfurous smoke billowed out. My fellow passengers had eyes.  The conductor looked normal. He did not mutter any obscene demonic oaths. 
     "Papé Satan, papé Satan, aleppe...."
     "I beg your pardon!?"
     "Please stand clear of the doors..."
      The canned voice calling the stops were the usual: "Glenview," not "Gehenna;" "North Glenview," not "Netherworld." 
      Literature is literature. It lives in a separate realm and does not invade our own. We read it because it offers a knot of complexity and significance, hidden meaning and drama, and a frisson of fear that is absent in our plodding regular life. Right? It's absent in real life, right? As in, not there. Except of course this. It was there. I saw it. 

Postscript Thursday morning.

     "There are more ways to be stupid in this job than you can shake a stick at," I called down to my wife.
    "What?" she called back.
     "I'll explain later." I was looking, grimly, at a tweet from Mark Czerniac: "Do you have Google?" And then this link, connecting the reader to the spectrum of skull back dresses—21 million hits. I muttered a silent prayer that I had not irredeemably tarred myself as old, and out-of-it, that every passerby under the age of 50 wasn't intimately familiar with these dresses. I flashed to coming home last night, infused with zeal to write the above, checking the Emily Dickinson quote—those dashes, must get those right, or her zealots will be upon me—and the Dante line, which I put in the mouth of the conductor, and of course pulling down "Death in Venice" to make sure I had the publication date right—yup, 1912—and to check my memory of the death figure. Nope, not a gardener, a "foreigner" —wonder how I did that? The passing of the years.
      The thought, "better plug 'skull back dress' into Google to see if it a quotidian fashion known to all," never crossed my mind. The sort of thing that having another person read this before posting might save me from.
     And a matter I will explore more fully in a post describing my attempts to figure out which end of the train at Northbrook is the end that will be closest to Madison Street, a challenge that thwarted me on my first attempt, and a failing that—I hope—makes me human and not sub-human. We're all dumb, we're just dumb about different things. Part of being smart is knowing that.  

Post-postscript — July 11, 2014

     So I head up to the 10th floor lunchroom for a quick soy milk, and what do I see but the same young woman in the same dress. It turns out she is not Death incarnate, is an intern from St. Andrews in Scotland, working for Splash, the Sun-Times' fashion and nightlife magazine. She took the news of the above post, which I felt obligated to share, with amused curiosity, or at least polite interest.  And so the story comes full circle. 


  1. Actually Neil, you did die. Only to find out that death is just like life. You still have to write your blog. Every goddamn day...

  2. Well, I asked my 7 year old.

    She said "It's a skull. Isn't it a skull?"

    From the mouths of babes...

  3. Hmmm, when did you take Erich Heller's class? I believe I had him in '79, his last class before he retired. But I remember him talking more about the Fox and the Hedgehog than Death in Venice.

    BTW my colleague Rachel, with whom you shared the table at Challah-fest, thought you were a nice guy and she'll read your column from now on.

    1. Yes, in fall of '78. If I recall correctly, it could be difficult figuring out exactly WHAT Prof. Heller was saying. His accent could be kinda thick. I do remember running into him on my way to my student job, and him expressing incredulity that I would spend any time working. "You should be reading Socrates!" he said. Thanks for passing that along about Rachel. She seemed like a nice young lady.

  4. Well, at the risk of angering my wife, I like the image you took better than the ones that come up when you google "skull back dress."

  5. THAT, is a great story! I'm very happy that you lived to tell it. I'm sure you realize that those young women in skull dresses are actually the Grim Reaper's little helpers.


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