Floraphilia Or The Revenge Of The Flowers
Flowering plants don’t just grow in soil, they are also rooted in our hearts and blossom in our literature; from Wordsworth’s daffodils to Sylvia Plath’s poppies. We love flowers and our love itself is like a red, red rose, just as the columbine is the emblem of our foolishness, the marsh-lily the symbol of our corruption and the narcissus conveys our conceit. It might be said that in language as in art, we have formed an unnatural alliance with flowers and some, like Oscar Wilde, fervently hope that in the next life they might even become-flower: which is to say, beautiful, but soulless. Our affection, however, isn’t necessarily returned, because plants aren’t sentimental. And nor do flowers exist merely to serve the symbolic function we assign to them.
So whilst, on the one hand, I would like to speak about our erotic entanglement with flora, on the other, I want also to develop the idea of what might be termed the revenge of the flowers – that is to say, the manner in which they challenge the supposed superiority of animal life and conspire to eventually triumph over our attempts to create a fully idealized, humanized and mechanized world. For it is well to remember from the outset that not only are we individually destined to putrefy into plant food and thereby assist in ‘pushing up daisies’ as the popular idiom puts it with quite shocking material frankness, but, as many scientists warn, if collectively we continue along the same world-destructive and species-exterminating path, then that nemesis of all human endeavour, the weed might yet conquer. For whilst the colossal power of man and his machines may seem to be absolute and supreme, it’s worth recalling that plants have ancestral reality and that we remain completely dependent on them to provide the air we breathe and the food we eat. We can pave the world over with concrete and tarmac, but in the absence of chlorophyll, we can’t use sunlight to photosynthesize nutrients directly from carbon dioxide and water and thus, in the final analysis, it’s grass – that most unassuming of all plants – that continues to provide the foundation for life on earth.
And so, whilst herbivores may graze them and synthetic herbicides may kill them, the wild plants will rise again and “the pyramids will not last a moment, compared with the daisy.” One way or another, we seem certain to be fucked by flowers.
I’ll return to this notion of floral revenge and what might be termed the inhuman and pre-human ‘truth’ or reality of flowers a little later. Firstly, I’d like to say something about plant reproduction and the manner in which we, like insects, become implicated in their sex games just as they are utilized in ours. But, just to be clear before we go any further, please note that I’m not a botanist, nor some variety of ethnobotanist. Indeed, some would say I’m not even a very good philosopher. However, whilst it’s true I don’t have a professional insight into the love life of flowers or the ways in which peoples around the world have developed cultural customs, religious rites, and medicinal practices involving plants, I have nevertheless been swotting up on these subjects in preparation for this paper and I’m grateful to those scholars who have dedicated their lives to understanding plant biology and the intimate relationship between flora and fauna. It’s their work which allows me to give this paper a veneer of respectable science which, hopefully, will help defend it from critics who might otherwise dismiss it as no more than a “wordy mass of revolting nonsense”.
This having been said, let us now enter the world of plants – or flowering plants to be more precise: for whilst I have nothing against non-flowering plants – some of my best friends are non-flowering plants – it is nevertheless the angiosperms that interest me the most, in all their rich diversity and, indeed, perversity.
On the Genealogy Of Florals
The angiosperms first began their evolutionary divergence around two hundred and twenty million years ago from the even-more provocatively named gymnosperms, i.e. seed-producing plants, such as conifers, that afford their spores no protective covering in the form of the sweet, fleshy body that we term and consume as fruit. But it wasn’t until some eighty million years later, however, that flowering plants as we would recognise them today – characterized by their colourful floral effects, their swollen and edible ovaries, and the presence of nutritious endosperm within their seeds – fully blossomed into the world. Eventually, the angiosperms would become widespread in range, enormously varied in number, and supersede the gymnosperms as the dominant terrestrial plant form.
The flower, then, is the most remarkable and distinguishable characteristic of the flowering plant. Without flowers, an angiosperm would be just another green plant: all leaf and naked of seed. Arguably, the same is true of people: they either blossom into full being like a bright red poppy, or they remain closed up within a mass of foliage, growing fat like a cabbage.
Sadly, many people seem to resent the shameless, scarlet flowering of poppies: perhaps it seems excessive in an age of austerity. Or perhaps there are health and safety issues over these tiny ‘hell flames’. Whatever the reason, most of us prefer fat green cabbages: you can rely on them. You can cook them. And you can eat them. But our great writers and philosophers teach us that life isn’t the same as self-preservation and that even reproduction isn’t the ultimate clue to being. What matters, in people as in plants, is precisely the flowery excess that accompanies reproduction. D. H. Lawrence, for example, writes:
“The excess is the thing itself at its maximum of being. If it had stopped short of this excess, it would not have been at all. ... In this excess, the plant is transfigured into flower, it achieves itself at last. The aim, the culmination of all, is the red of the poppy...”
For Lawrence, there’s something contemptible about those individuals who never burst into flower, but choose instead to “linger into inactivity at the vegetable, self-preserving stage ... like the regulation cabbage”. Better, he suggests, to become even a foul-smelling yellow weed than to remain tightly enclosed within your own greenness, getting fatter and fatter whilst all the time turning rotten at the core.
Perhaps he’s right: I used to think he was right. But now I’m not so sure: now it seems to me that even cabbages have their place in the world and – as I earlier confessed – some of my best friends are non-flowering plants. So I have to admit that I find it increasingly difficult to establish the violent hierarchies and orders of rank that Lawrence, like Nietzsche, had such a fondness for constructing. Indeed, even to make the comparison between two different forms of being such as a poppy and a cabbage seems absurd and unnecessary. So, for now, let us return to the science; we can always come back to the philosophical moralizing a little later.
Flowers, to reiterate, are the overtly – some might say obscenely – colourful sex organs of the flowering plant and they are what distinguish them from other, earlier forms of seed producing plant. And flowers have allowed angiosperms to largely dominate the earth by making them far more adaptable to many kinds of environment. Their stamens for example – i.e. the male organs of the plant containing the pollen sacs – are not only better evolved for the process of pollination than the corresponding organs in gymnosperms, but they have also become modified to decrease the danger of self-fertilization, thereby permitting greater diversification and allowing angiosperms to fill more ecological niches.
The pollen grains, or sperm producing cells of flowering plants, are also much smaller than the gametocytes of the gymnosperms. This results in a significantly decreased period of time between pollination (i.e. the pollen grain reaching the carpel or, if you like, the cunt of the plant) and fertilization of the ovum. Obviously, this also has a clear evolutionary advantage. Once the ovum has been fertilized, the carpel and surrounding tissue develops into the fruit which is often attractive and edible to a wide range of seed-dispersing birds and beasts. These dumb animals are effectively exploited by angiosperms in the process of seed dispersal in much the same way as many flowering plants use insect sex-slaves to do their dirty work. If this sounds a little facetious, I’m actually being quite serious here: insects are frequently exploited, enslaved and even sometimes eaten by flowering plants and I think we should say a little more about this erotic phenomenon of entomophily.
Pollination, quite simply, is the botanical term for fucking. It is the process by which one plant receives the pollen from another. Ideally, this pollen will be from a plant of the same species so that fertilization can readily take place and viable seeds form, but it might be noted that plants generally are far more promiscuous and quicker to successfully hybridize (or cross-breed) than animal species. Some angiosperms are pollinated abiotically by the wind, some by water. And some rely upon small animals, such as bats or hummingbirds. But the majority, around 80%, enlist the help of roughly 200,000 different types of insect. It is, if you like – and somewhat paradoxically – a perfectly natural form of artificial insemination.
To be strictly accurate – and contrary to what I said a moment ago – insect pollination is more a form of paid sex work, or prostitution, rather than slavery; because when plants are fucked by insects the latter usually get something sweet in return for their services: Mmmm, nectar. However, this is not to say that the insects are entering into the relationship with full consent (whatever that might mean in the world of bugs and bees and sycamore trees) and most seem blissfully unaware that they are playing such a crucial role in plant reproduction.
Further, there are times when male insects are sexually duped by a plant with sex organs that have evolved to look like the female of their species. The insect is attracted not by the pretty colours or the alluring scent of the flower, nor even the promise of a sugary drink, but by the prospect of being able to mate. The French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari discuss this in A Thousand Plateaus, with particular reference to the case of an orchid and a wasp. However, they argue that it should be understood in terms of becoming based on a series of ‘deterritorializations’ and subsequent ‘reterritorializations’ and not in the more conventional terms of mimesis, mimicry, lure, etc. that I have suggested. They write for example:
“The orchid deterritorializes by forming an image, a tracing of a wasp; but the wasp reterritorializes on that image. The wasp is nevertheless deterritorialized, becoming a piece in the orchid’s reproductive apparatus. But it reterritorializes the orchid by transporting its pollen. Wasp and orchid, as heterogeneous elements, form a rhizome. It could be said that the orchid imitates the wasp, reproducing its image in a signifying fashion ... But this is true only on the level of the strata – a parallelism between two strata such that a plant organization on one imitates an animal organization on the other. At the same time, something else entirely is going on: not imitation at all ... but a veritable becoming, a becoming-wasp of the orchid and a becoming-orchid of the wasp. Each of these becomings brings about the deterritorialization of one term and the reterritorialization of the other; the two becomings interlink and form relays in a circulation of intensities pushing the deterritorialization ever further. There is neither imitation nor resemblance, only an exploding of two heterogeneous series on the line of flight composed by a common rhizome that can no longer be attributed to or subjugated by anything signifying.”
You might be asking by now what – if anything – this aparallel evolution or game of becoming played out between two things that have absolutely nothing to do with each other, has to do with us. And how are we implicated in the sex life of flowers, other than economically, for example (and it deserves to be noted that the free pollination of flowering plants by insects saves the human economy billions of dollars each year; something you might care to remember next time you attempt to swat a fly).
The answer, at least to the second question, is hay fever. Or, more accurately, pollinosis: for what is the allergic reaction to pollen suffered by many millions of men, women and children each spring and long into the summer months other than a sexually transmitted condition? We are, quite literally, sexually pestered and assaulted by flowering plants that unrestrainedly allow their sperm-producing cells to be carried by any passing breeze into the eyes, ears, nose and throat of any passing creature. The irritation caused as our body reacts to defend itself from what it perceives to be a threat, is arguably a sign that there remains a primal hostility and a mutual mistrust between flora and fauna.
As with herpes, there is presently no cure for hay fever. However, an article in The New Scientist three years ago suggested that ‘organic masturbation’ with fruit and vegetables might alleviate the problem. It turned out to be an April Fool’s Day joke. But, many a word spoken in jest ... The revenge of the flowers starts with a runny nose – who’s to say in what humiliating circumstances it might end?
Birkin Among The Flowers
I was tempted at this point to provide illustrative photos or film to show that, as a matter of fact, immoral if potentially allergy-relieving sexual contacts between people and vegetation are already quite common and that not all plant-human penetration is non-consensual. For whilst no one really wants or asks for a nose full of pollen, many men and women are happy it appears to insert carrots, cucumbers, and courgettes into those places usually reserved for cocks, tongues, fingers, sex toys and – if it takes your fancy – small rodents. But, then I was reminded that this is meant to be a literary paper, the purpose of which, ostensibly, is to discuss books and ideas, philosophy and the fine arts, rather than a pornographic power-point presentation. Besides, just because a woman might choose to insert a banana into her vagina, doesn’t necessarily mean that she is on the road to building a body without organs, or that she’s had done with the judgement of God.
And so, let us turn our attention then to a very strange scene from a very disconcerting novel, Lawrence’s Women in Love, in which the central male protagonist, Rupert Birkin, has just been given a bash on the head by his girlfriend Hermione, with a stone paper-weight. Don’t ask why: it doesn’t really matter, does it? Hermione recalled afterwards that “she had only hit him, as any woman might do, because he tortured her”. So fair enough, I suppose. But the blow was a serious one and as he fled the scene Birkin was barely conscious. Nevertheless, he managed to make his way “out of the house and straight across the park, to the open country, to the hills”, where many flowers and trees were growing, and spots of rain were beginning to fall. Lawrence continues:
“He was happy in the wet hill-side that was overgrown and obscure with bushes and flowers. He wanted to touch them all, to saturate himself with the touch of them all. He took off his clothes, and sat down naked among the primroses, moving his feet softly among the primroses, his legs, his knees, his arms right up to the arm-pits, then lying down and letting them touch his belly, his breasts. It was such a fine, cool, subtle touch all over him, he seemed to saturate himself with their contact.
But they were too soft. He went through the long grass to a clump of young fir-trees, that were no higher than a man. The soft sharp boughs beat upon him, as he moved in keen pangs against them, threw little cold showers of drops on his belly, and beat his loins with their clusters of soft-sharp needles. There was a thistle which pricked him vividly, but not too much, because all his movements were too discriminate and soft. To lie down and roll in the sticky, cool young hyacinths, to lie on one’s belly and cover one’s back with handfuls of fine wet grass, soft as a breath, soft and more delicate and more beautiful than the touch of any woman; and then to sting one’s thigh against the living dark bristles of the fir-boughs; and then to feel the light whip of the hazel on one’s shoulders, stinging, and then to clasp the silvery birch-trunk against one’s breast, its smoothness, its hardness, its vital knots and ridges – this was good, this was all very good, very satisfying. Nothing else would do, nothing else would satisfy, except this coolness and subtlety of vegetation travelling into one’s blood. How fortunate he was, that there was this lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation, waiting for him, as he waited for it; how fulfilled he was, how happy!”
“Really, what a mistake he had made, thinking he wanted people, thinking he wanted a woman. He did not want a woman – not in the least. The leaves and the primroses and the trees, they were really lovely and cool and desirable, they really came into the blood and were added on to him. He was enrichened now immeasurably, and so glad.
It was quite right of Hermione to want to kill him. What had he to do with her? Why should he pretend to have anything to do with human beings at all? Here was his world, he wanted nobody and nothing but the lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation, and himself, his own living self.
It was necessary to go back into the world. That was true. But that did not matter ... He knew now where he belonged. He knew where to plant himself, his seed: – along with the trees, in the folds of the delicious fresh growing leaves. This was his place, his marriage place. The world was extraneous.
He climbed out of the valley, wondering if he were mad. But if so, he preferred his own madness, to the regular sanity. He rejoiced in his own madness, he was free. He did not want that old sanity of the world, which had become so repulsive. He rejoiced in the new-found world of his madness. It was so fresh and delicate and so satisfying.
As for the certain grief he felt at the same time, in his soul, that was only the remains of an old ethic, that bade a human-being adhere to humanity. But he was weary of the old ethic, of the human being, and of humanity. He loved now the soft, delicate vegetation, that was so cool and perfect. He would overlook the old grief, he would put away the old ethic, he would be free in his new state.”
“He wondered again how much of his heaviness of heart, a certain depression, was due to fear, fear lest anybody should have seen him lying naked with the vegetation. What a dread he had of mankind, of other people! It amounted almost to horror, to a sort of dream terror – his horror of being observed by some other people. If he were on an island ... with only the creatures and the trees, he would be free and glad, there would be none of this heaviness, this misgiving. He could love the vegetation and be quite happy and unquestioned, by himself.”
I don’t know about you, but every time I read these passages, or hear them spoken, they strike me as not only profoundly queer but absolutely astonishing – far more disturbing than the later passages in the novel describing acts of sexual shenanigans between Birkin and Ursula. That said, the last time I discussed Birkin’s night among the flowers in a public forum, I was surrounded by witches and they seemed to find the idea of al fresco masturbation and sex with plants perfectly acceptable and, indeed, perfectly common-place. For them, it was a kind of ‘spiritual’ practice; an orgasmic-communion with nature, or a calling-up of vital energies, etc. And it probably remains the case that most people who want to take their clothes off and hump trees or ejaculate on the buttercups – dendrophiles and floraphiles alike – are a little pagan, or potty – or both.
Not that I’m attempting to dismiss or ridicule the idea that we can establish some form of sympathy with the inhuman and non-human world of flowers. Indeed, those who know me will vouch for the fact that I go further than this and insist also on the validity and importance of establishing intimate contacts with inanimate things as well, not just living plants, animals, or other people. My real concern at the moment, indeed, is with objectum sexuality, rather than floraphilia. But that’s another paper. So, returning if I may to the Lawrence passages, let’s begin to think through what they might tell us and how they might relate to earlier ideas discussed.
It might reasonably be suggested that what’s primarily going on here is that Birkin is in the process of forming what Deleuze and Guattari termed a rhizome, or an unnatural alliance between himself and the vegetal world, similar to that formed between the wasp and the orchid or, if you prefer, the owl and the pussy cat who went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat. It’s a deterritorialization of sex from its traditional object and aim; a setting free of desire to roam and eventually reterritorialize on all kinds of new things, in all sorts of strange new ways. Indeed, the great and intoxicating truth that Birkin demonstrates is that we can form loving relations not just with anyone – but anything and everything.
The rest of Stephen Alexander's Floraphilia paper (including footnotes and references) can be read in the chapbook version of Beat the Dust's Open issue, May 2012.