I’ve just finished reading Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which Benjamin wrote in 1936—almost fifty years after Haggard wrote She. I am wary of the dangers of applying post-dated theory to a piece of literature, and Haggard obviously did not write She with Benjamin’s essay in mind, but examining the function of Ayesha’s beauty in the narrative through the lens of Benjamin’s essay has helped me understand Holly’s inability to describe Ayesha’s beauty, much less to master it.
Benjamin writes, “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol. Both of them, however, were equally confronted with its uniqueness, that is, its aura. Originally the contextual integration of art in tradition found its expression in the cult. We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual – first the magical, then the religious kind. It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of the “authentic” work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value. This ritualistic basis, however remote, is still recognizable as secularized ritual even in the most profane forms of the cult of beauty.”
Original, authentic pieces of art, Benjamin claims, possess within them a narrative of social and political power and authority that is unique in and only to that piece of art as a historical artifact. Benjamin calls this the “aura” of a piece of art—something other than physical characteristics that the artwork contains that would make it impossible to reproduce. Also included in this “aura” is the historical narrative accompanying the object that marks its existence through time and in time. Though the reproduction of artwork as a general practice is certainly possible, “true” reproduction is not: no reproduction can assume the aura of the original.
How is this relevant to She? With “curiosity overpowering” his reason, Holly agrees to watch Ayesha unveil her beauty (143). What Holly then sees in this moment is impossible to describe—or so he claims: “How am I to describe it? I cannot—simply, I cannot! The man does not live whose pen could convey a sense of what I saw” (143). As with most writers who proclaim that something is impossible to describe, Holly proceeds on to his description, though he does so with a certain reserve. “I might talk of the great changing eyes of deepest, softest black, of the tinted face, of the broad and noble brow, on which the hair grew low, and delicate, straight features” (143). The conditional verb “might” plays an important role in this description: it allows Holly to fulfill both his own claim and the curiosity of the reader, who, by this point, is also overwhelmed by the desire to know what Ayehsa looks like underneath her “long, corpse-like wrapping” (143).
Holly goes on to write that while he could ascribe Ayesha’s beauty to her physical appearance, he chooses not to because her beauty springs from some other place. He writes, “But, beautiful, surpassingly beautiful as they all were, her loveliness did not lie in them. It lay rather, if it can be said to have had any fixed abiding place, in a visible majesty, in an imperial grace, in a godlike stamp of softened power, which shone upon that radiant countenance like a living halo” (143). This is perhaps the most captivating description of Ayesha. Ayesha is quite literally surrounded by an aura. She is a living piece of authentic art, carrying with her the historical narrative of her own existence through time and the authority that comes with her presence. Implicit in this description of the understanding that Ayesha is a singular piece of art. Nothing like her exists within the sphere of the modern world (where, it should be noted, production and reproduction runs rampant). That aura that surrounds her “like a living halo” means that she is authentic and original, in terms of Benjamin’s argument.
The sheer power of her aura helps us understand why Holly struggles with her description: how, exactly, does one describe an “aura”? Can that mysterious thing be captured by language? Can it be confined to the written page? The other problem that this dynamic poses for Ayesha is one of subjectivity. If we consider that she has an “aura” and is, in essence, a piece of art, then Ayesha is an object. How do we then reconcile her being an object—subject to the male gaze—with her apparent power and control? There is an inherent paradox here: her “aura” is the very thing that gives her power over men, but it is simultaneously what affirms her existence as an art object.