The Goethean Image Of Helen’s Veil In Benjamin And Gabrichevskii

Jamilya Nazyrova, University of Southern California

My paper is concerned with imagery parallelism in Walter Benjamin’s and Aleksandr Gabrichevskii’s aesthetic theories of the 1920s. By exploring the origin and meaning of the typologically similar metaphor of the external form in Benjamin’s Goethe’s Elective Affinities and in Gabrichevskii’s theoretical works on art and architecture, I will demonstrate that they both appeal to the same mythology of the veil in their phenomenological polemics against metaphysics.

Both Benjamin and Gabrichevskii turn to the external form imagery in their discussions of art, and, in particular, use the theme of the physical body and its external form as a veil (W.Benjamin. Goethe’s Elective Affinities; On Beautiful Semblance) and as a garment and a shell (A.Gabrichevskii. Odezhda i zdanie; Prostranstvo i massa v arkhitekture, K voprosy o stroenii khudozhestvennogo obraza v arkhitekture). Juxtaposing Gabrichevskii’s ideas and images to Benjamin’s article (especially in reference to Goethe), Georg Simmel’s work Goethe, (which introduces the Goethean myth of Helen’s veil in the phenomenological discussion of beauty) and Goethe’s natural science works allows me to apply a Goethean context for Gabrichevskii’s shell-images as well.

Both authors’ theories aim to position themselves against the paradigm of beauty as semblance associated with Plato and Kant. These theories aim to overcome the dichotomy of transcendental beauty as eidos and of material beauty as semblance. Benjamin uses the image of Helen’s veil from Faust II to present beauty as a unity of appearance and transcendent truth, “of veil and veiled” (W.Benjamin. Goethe’s Elective affinities), which is achieved in art and nature, and insists that the Kantian rational doctrine remains methodologically true, while beauty “holds in itself not the idea but rather the latter’s secret” (ibid). By comparison, Gabrichevskii’s presentation displays an inversion in the interpretation of the shell-image. He abolishes the speculative concept of beauty in substituting it with the semi-empirical concept of “plastic value” (plasticheskaia tsennost’). In insisting on the plastic syncretism of a kernel and its shell, he refers to the sensually perceptible form as a subject of the experience of plastic value. The independent value of the shell, according to him, is the outcome of the evolution from nature to art (Morphologiia iskusstva, Prostranstvo i massa v arkhitekture).

In comparing Benjamin’s and Gabrichevskii’s interpretations of the outward form I aim to explore the extent to which the similarity in Benjamin’s and Gabrichevskii’s interpretations of the outward form imagery is inspired by the same source (Simmel’s Goethe), and the extent to which the variations in both Benjamin’s and Gabrichevskii’s theories originate from the contradiction in contemporaneous literary scholarship, which considers Goethe as representative of either Classicism or the Baroque.