that is the search term that led someone here this week. it surprised me because i didn’t remember ever writing anything about sais or veils. In fact, I explicitly did not know what sais was. I thought the connection to my blog must have been some strange confluence of chance and algorithm. I assumed, as I always assume, that walter means benjamin. And then I started to think about the term veil, since I had written a poem today with the term ‘unveiling’ in it. And it made me think about how veil is one of those words that has an invisible ‘anti’ attached to it as a prefix. The way we use it in English, is almost exclusively negative. There is a desire in most Western cultures to deveil Muslim women. We have ‘unveilings’, which are very pleasant affairs. Otherwise, we make veiled threats. These are unpleasant. In fact, a veiled threat seems to manage to be more threatening than an unveiled threat. A threat that has already held an unveiling.
So I immediately thought if there might be a purely positive conception of veiling, an affirmative conception of veiling. And of course there is this amongst women who choose to wear the veil, and see it as their own affirmative and liberating choice. But I also thought about architecture. Architecture, because for a night I am in Barcelona, and had been walking through the Barri Gotic, and for some reason, it seemed that I had failed to fully explore the Barri Gotic despite having been to this city numerous times. In its most dense sections, the lanes are approximately 3m wide. I was overwhelmed as I walked through them, not just because of the kind of bodily memory that it activated in me (I wrote an undergrad research paper on the spatial poetics of the similarly dense old section of pamplona), but also because I have been living in Berlin. The street that I ride along to get to the Benjamin Archive is Karl Marx Allee, which, despite carrying probably a third of the traffic of new canterbury rd, is 89m wide:
This kind of geographic extensivity can only ever make me think of this quote from Benjamin:
A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.
I think that is part of the reason why Berlin lacks a certain purchase on me. Don’t get me wrong. I love it. But it doesn’t have the same corporal connection as certain parts of Spain do for me. I read somewhere that Richard Serra responded to criticisms of his large scale steel sculptures in Bilbao’s Guggenheim as ‘intimidating’ and ‘dominating by saying that they were no such thing. In fact they illicit the same feeling as being in the old town of any Spanish city, and that is hardly domineering.
Returning to the notion of veiling, and linked to architecture is Adolf Loos.
In the beginning was cladding [Bekleidung]…. The covering is the oldest architectural detail. Originally it was made out of animal skins or textile products. This meaning of the word [Decke] is still known today in the German languages, then the covering had to be put up somewhere if it were to afford enough shelter. . . . Thus the walls were added. . . Cladding is even older than structure.
For Loos, this ends up – or starts out from – a valuing of the smooth and the unadorned, and is related to a political desire for a kind of anti-particular, modernist cosmopolitanism, as a resolution to the remarkably diverse ethnic makeup of Hapsburg Empire Vienna. Ethnic difference, for Loos, can be erased not through the absolute erasure of ornament, but by a replacement with the proliferations of particularist ornament, with a restrained, classical ornament, which brings logic to shapes and forms in the same way that Latin grammar brings form to language. Here we see once again the threat of linguistic standardisations towards totalitarianism. It seems to me that Loos came to value the walls too much. The walls were only ever there to support the cladding, the clothing. I was reading a letter from Benjamin in the archive the other week in which he recounts hanging out with Brecht and Brecht is acting, playing the part of the state under communism, leaning over towards Benjamin and saying: oh, I know that I should wither away… Structures don’t like handing things over when they’re no longer needed. They continue rattling inside like the deflated ballon in a papier mâché elephant.
So there seems to be two risks I suppose, the veil as positive and negative. The veil, that like Loos’ Latin grammar, must be applied to difference like a fire-blanket. And likewise, the purely negative conception of the veil, which conceals the threat of difference, and must be everywhere unveiled.
This is exactly Novalis’ description of the unveiling of the goddess at Sais (which is apparently why it is famous, Plutarch, I’m being told by the interweb):
Someone arrived there — who lifted the veil of the goddess, at Sais. — But what did he see? He saw — wonder of wonders — himself.
This is the desperate desire of all of the veil-lifters, (that is, if we take them at their best word) to lift the veil of difference, or more specifically, of women who wear veils, and to see, wonder of wonders, themselves.
Both are worrying. Benjamin criticises the unveiling motion of romanticist criticism that hopes to reveal the truth of the work of art because truth is intentionless. Since I am writing this from a strange room in Barcelona that feels like 1941 without the food shortages, and I’m not really being rigorous here, I’m not really going to try to figure out everything that is happening in Benjamin here, but Josh cohen links it to Benjamin’s image of ideas being to objects as constellations are to stars. Something that gives form to objects in a non-intentional way, and refuses to deveil them, since the object of beauty is not the object or the veil, but the object in the veil. Which makes me think again of Benjamin on language and medium, but also, of a few images:
– the movement through the miniscule streets of the Barri Gotic
– A child’s fort built out of sheets and blankets, with the minimal amount of points of suspension since, for it to serve as a place of dwelling, there must be as few obstructions as possible, and as much fabric as possible.
– Architecture without walls.