“[…] Darwin […] cracked the secret of flowers , by showing that their special features […] were all ‘contrivances’: they had all evolved in the service of cross-fertilization. What had once been a pretty picture of insects buzzing about brightly colored flowers now became an essential drama in life, full of biological depth and meaning”.
Actually, I don’t know much about flowers. Am more a tree-kind of person; the upward surging kind of trees that is, the cathedral ones. And I like them best when they’re all wintry spires and naked branches, having shed any associations with lust for life.
And yes, I’ve always been rather wary around spring flowers, with their sheer abundance of colors & smells & voluptuous flowery shapes … all that organic ostentation … So, far from me to feel affronted by the Darwinian exposure of flowers’ colors & smells as mere reproductive ploys, adapted to insects’ senses.
And I’m definitely no crypto-creationist irked by evolutionary interpretations.
“Flowers required no Creator, but were wholly intelligible as products of accident and selection, of tiny incremental changes extending over hundreds of millions of years. This, for Darwin, was the meaning of flowers, the meaning of all adaptations, plant and animal, the meaning of natural selection”
But hey! Now, really. I do object! Twice!!
1) Such an abuse of the meaning of the word “Meaning”!!! And worst of all, coming from so eminent & meaningful a humanist as Oliver Sacks. That cries out for a brave post to save the word “meaning” from the clutches of functional- utilitarian teleology.
2) subsidiary object of ire: how dare they posit flowers as merely obsessed with their own reproduction & the seduction of cross-fertilizing insects , how dare they rob flowers of their capacity to freely please human spectators.
Actually, I think Sacks just succumbed to the facile attraction of a good title such as “the meaning of flowers” (a title which I promptly borrowed for this post). Of course he wouldn’t need to consult Merriam Webster (2) for the meaning of meaning. In fact, he qualifies his use of “meaning” himself , describing Darwin as one who “[…] asked why, […] seeking meaning (not in any final sense, but in the immediate sense of use or purpose.)”
But so, should you ask me about the meaning of flowers – then I’d rather express surprise , surprise at the enormous variety of flowers, and of animal and plant life in general. At the sheer excess and seeming superfluity. Surprise at all this sound & fury, all these blazing urges of self-display.
This “urge to appear” (3) that seems to outstrip by far “what may be deemed necessary for life-preservation and sexual attraction”.
Wondering indeed about final meanings, about the question of all questions, the “why is there something and not rather nothing”. All that energy gratuitously spent at being, at appearing. But well yes, I can see the survival & reproductive value of ostentation – & yes, surviving takes at least wanting to survive, takes at least some lust for life… whatever survives is what survives.
But over to the second objection then. What about the meaning of flowers for loving human spectators. What about their beauty as experienced by humans? Meaning, neither in a final sense, nor in the immediate sense of use – meaning rather as a human appraisal which is as (inter-) subjective (and as potentially universal!) as taste.
Humans, though of hardly any cross-fertilizing use to flowers, are as attracted as insects are by flowers’ colors & smells. And flowers, though of no reproductive or survival value to humans, are loved dearly by said humans.
So thàt mystery of the beauty of flowers remains – the fact that humans, in a wholly dis-interested way, find so much pleasure in their beauty. (4)
a rose is a rose is a rose
(1) Oliver Sacks in a NYRB article
1 a: the thing one intends to convey especially by language : PURPORT b: the thing that is conveyed especially by language : IMPORT2: something meant or intended : AIM 3: significant quality ; especially : implication of a hidden or special significance 4 a: the logical connotation of a word or phrase b: the logical denotation or extension of a word or phrase
(3) Hannah Arendt : from the chapter about ‘the value of the surface’ in The Life of the Mind
(4) Elisabeth Prettejohn in “Beauty & Art” about Kant’s theory of aesthetical judgment : “[when we make a reflective judgment of taste] we do not expect to gain anything from it. It is a disinterested judgment. […] Kant is determined to preserve the possibility that human beings can do this paradoxical thing, and evaluate an object without reference to the interests or purposes it may serve”.