Electric Whirl

Some things have appropriate names. The electric whirl is a device that consists of brass wires or plates, poised upon a pivot, that spin around when static electricity is applied. The gentle breeze, which results from the flow of electrons from the tips of the wires is known as an aura.

I didn’t consider this when I was writing about Walter Benjamin a few days ago, nor did I consider that the oldest definition of aura listed in the OED is “a zephyr,” a gentle breeze. In fact, in 1398 the terms aura and zephyr were interchangeable. It is a latinized version of the Greek αὔρα, now translated as breeze or breath.

There is a particularly interesting use of the word by George Berkeley from 1732 in Alciphron: “After which [i.e. the flying off of the volatile salt or spirit] the Oil remains dead and insipid, but without any sensible diminution of its weight, by the loss of that volatile essence of the Soul, that æthereal aura.” The connection of aura with soul foreshadows the way it was taken up in the late nineteenth century. An odd confluence is the inclusion, in this 1732 publication of Berkeley’s 1709 “An Essay Toward a New Theory of Vision” in which Berkeley embarked on his program of “immaterialism.”

A cornerstone of Berkeley’s explanation of vision pivots upon the difficulty we have in determining distance from visual evidence, arguing further that the sense of sight and the sense of touch were totally incommensurate. With incongruous sensual information, we cannot ever really know objects outside our mental conceptions of them.

The OED also connects aura with an odor, or a smell that arises as a “subtle emanation.” Curiously, the explanation reconnects with the Anemoi Zephyrus. From The cyclopædia of anatomy and physiology (1835–1859):

Fecundation is attributable to the agency of an aura from..the seminal fluid

Painters frequently depict Zephyr with maidens with blossoms emerging from them when graced with the west wind, as is the case with this detail from Botticelli’s Primavera. There’s a distinct network of connotations for “living spirit” with the term aura, whether it is soul or simply fertility.

During Walter Benjamin’s time, spiritualism was still very much a force in the world and surely he was familiar with (though he avoids it in his definition) of that level of meaning to the term: “A supposed subtle emanation from and enveloping living persons and things, viewed by mystics as consisting of the essence of the individual, serving as the medium for the operation of mesmeric and similar influences.” Benjamin isn’t applying it to people, but strictly to objects.

In a note in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1737, Benjamin Franklin suggests that earthquakes in Pennsylvania might be caused by an “imprisoned aura” like the discharge of the electric whirl, and pathologists also connected aura with the onset of seizures “A sensation, as of a current of cold air rising from some part of the body to the head, which occurs as a premonitory symptom in epilepsy and hysterics.” So, it might not just be a pleasant fertile wind— an aura might be an ill wind as well.

Aura is ultimately an incredibly synesthetic description. It might be taken as tactile, as aural, as an odor or, as Walter Benjamin suggests, as a visual phenomena. When gazing up at a branch where the sun has cast its shadow on you, as he describes in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, one would obviously see a halo of sorts, as the light was diffracted by the edges of the leaves.

And like this illusion, the meaning and applicability of aura is always difficult to pin down with any degree of certainty. But it makes me happy to think of it as a form of living spirit that might cling to objects, not literally of course, but as a metaphoric effect.