David Auerbach interviews Philip Kitcher in 3:AM Magazine:
A long-time aficionado of modernism in general and James Joyce in particular, he wroteJoyce’s Kaleidoscope: An Invitation to Finnegans Wake (2007), an accessible and personal examination of Joyce’s daunting masterwork. He collaborated with prominent Nietzsche scholar Richard Schacht on Finding an Ending: Reflections on Wagner’s Ring (2004).Deaths in Venice is a penetrating examination of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice that examines the novella philosophically, historically, and biographically, drawing connections to Plato through to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and in particular to the music of Gustav Mahler and Benjamin Britten.
I spoke with Kitcher about how he came to the project and some of the questions and dilemmas his book left with me.
Literature as Philosophy
3:AM: What drew you to Death in Venice as a starting point? Did you always know that you would end by discussing Mahler’s work, via Britten and Visconti’s adaptations of Death in Venice?
Kitcher: Sometime during the 1990s, when I was teaching philosophy at UCSD, my friend, colleague, and music teacher, Carol Plantamura, discussed the possibility of teaching a course together looking at ways in which various literary works (plays, stories, novels) had been treated as operas, and how different themes emerged in the opera and in its original. One of the pairings we planned to use was Mann’s great novella and Britten’s opera. Unfortunately, the course was never taught, but the idea remained with me. In the past decade, as I read Mann in German for the first time, the full achievement – both literary and philosophical – of Death in Venice struck me forcefully, so that, when I was invited to give the Schoff Lectures at Columbia, the opportunity to reflect on the contrasts between novella and opera seemed irresistible.
But it turned out rather differently from the way I’d anticipated. First, my frame of reference for the Britten opera shifted. I’d always thought of Britten’s approach in Death in Venice as another exploration of the plight of the individual whose aspirations are at odds with those of the surrounding community: his last opera returning to the themes of Peter Grimes. As I read and listened and thought, however, Billy Budd came to seem a more appropriate foil forDeath in Venice.