He's got a thing for little boys.
And slowly but surely his perversion ruins him - eats away at him from the inside like a cancer. It's one of those intellectual novels of despair and effete ennui, but it tells the truth of concupiscence in a way that it probably doesn't intend to and in a way that's hard to forget. It's almost a fictional version of the story of Oscar Wilde - who learns, like the protagonist of Mann's tale, that our Eros is not always to be trusted - our desires are not to be deified.
But why is this?
Why can we not simply do what Joseph Campbell told us and Follow Our Bliss? Why can't we "do our own thing"? Why can 't we indulge our lusts - or our perversions for that matter - and be happy? After all, Christopher West and his followers tell us that a man who knocks at the door of a brothel is really seeking God. Yes, he's seeking God by way of grave sin and abuse of another human being, but it's all good, isn't it? If the Song of Songs is the Centerfold of the Bible, then isn't the Passion of Our Savior akin to the passion of the bedroom? If St. John has an ecstasy on Patmos, then may I not have my own ecstasy on a mattress? West sees sexual imagery even in the Baptism of Our Lord, even at the Easter Vigil, even in icons of the Virgin. St. Paul warns us of men whose "gods are their bellies" (Phil. 3:19). I say the ones we should fear are those whose gods are a few inches lower than that.
For the fact is that it's a deadly danger to spiritualize sex. We seem to have forgotten this, but Eros - which is an aspect of Love - is a mixed blessing because of our fallen human nature. Sometimes the blessing is not so mixed; sometimes we turn it into a great curse. But that's something you're not allowed to say any more. Nowadays we have to Buy the Lie - the lie that Deifies Desire, that makes a God out of What We Want. The Big Lie goes something like this ...
Is it really so bad that Mann's hero has a thing for boys on the beach in wet speedos? Is it really so bad that this desire is self-consuming, sterile, destructive of innocence and is unnatural, as deadly as the cholera in Venice? And poor Oscar Wilde! All he did was abandon his wife and children, opting out of loving and protecting them because of the allure of anal penetration with another man. Who are we to judge?!???!
I have had my own tussles with Eros.
Much of my life I've done exactly what Christopher West rightly warns against. I've smothered and suffocated it. And I mean Eros in the larger sense, not just in the narrowly sexual sense. Eros, writ large, is upward attraction, desire for anything we love, hunger for that which satisfies (in my case, this has generally been Acting and a life in Drama). And, yes, ultimately Eros is seeking God - both West and Campbell get that right. Even Pope Benedict said as much. In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est he makes it clear that love without Eros is love that is lame, a crippled love, a castrated love. Not only selfless love (agape) leads to God, but so does love that seeks to fill our heart's desire - which is another way of saying Eros. Agape without Eros is rote and hollow; Eros without Agape is self-consuming and fatal. We need both and both in balance.
But how often do we get that right? Especially since these days the Church at the diocesan and parish level is (generally speaking) absolutely no help whatsoever in addressing the central challenge of our lives - which is how to love, and love maturely (which is what St. Paul called being "mature in Christ").
For if I sometimes suffocated Eros, at other times in my life the balance was out of kilter in the other direction. Instead of smothering Eros, I indulged it, and thinking that the Romantic writers were right, The Poet in me demanded to sing love songs - at all hours, drunk or sober, even to strumpets on the street. And the Actor in me decided he'd work under any conditions, he loved acting so much, even for little pay and for people who took advantage of him. For four full years I followed that path and it made me utterly and totally miserable. Miserable like Mann's boy-lover in Venice. Miserable like Oscar Wilde in Reading Gaol. Miserable like a guy going through a mid-life crisis who leaves his wife for a stripper on the East Side.
If we simply Follow our Bliss we are blasted, not blissful.
Eros without Agape - a love of desire without a love of self-sacrifice - is deadly.