"the meaning of flowers" (1)

“[…] 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
(2) meaning
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”.


Antonia said...

meaning of flowers: to please freely.

Flowers are free beauties of nature. Hardly anyone but a botanist knows the true nature of a flower, and even he, while recognizing in the flower the reproductive organ of the plant, pays no attention to this natural end when using his taste to judge of its beauty. Hence no perfection of any kind-no internal finality, as something to which the arrangement of the manifold is related-underlies this judgement.
Many birds (the parrot, the humming-bird, the bird of paradise), and a number of crustacea, are self-subsisting beauties which are not appurtenant to any object defined with respect to its end, but please freely and on their own account. So designs a la grecque, foliage for framework or on wall-papers, etc., have no intrinsic meaning; they represent nothing-no object under a definite concept-and are free beauties. We may also rank in the same class what in music are called fantasias (without a theme), and, indeed, all music that is not set to words.

Kant - Critique of Judgement, §16. A judgement of taste by which an object is described as beautiful, under the condition of a definite concept, is not pure.

(sorry couldn't resist this one...)
and what about the relation between pleasure and meaning?

ffflaneur said...

dear A - you weren't meant to resist this one, it was a pure provocation! :-)

(but still, what bugs me: flowers do not please the buzzing bees freely ...)

hmmm, & your question: do you refer to the pleasure of meaning or the meaning of pleasure ?

Antonia said...

yah indeed, i couldn't resist this flourishing provocation.

pleasure of meaning or meanings of pleasre. oh, this is too intricated, i must ponder about this a wee bit more. you see with philosophers, you never have it easy, simple answers... i skip this.

do the flowers "know" that they don't please the bees freely? can flowers know? Is it about the knowledge of flowers, but that what the flowers know or what we are *meaning* to know about flowers? "Het geringste dat je in God kunt kennen, bijvoorbeeld wanneer je een bloem kent zoals die een zijn heeft in God, is edeler dan de hele wereld bij elkaar." Mester Eckhart.
so knowing about flowers is at any rate preferable than knowing the world. but this is een beetje ver door de bocht, je ziet het zo. hoe dan ook, leuke associatie in ieder geval. and again,we are left here with a new question, the difference between meaning and knowledge....

ffflaneur said...

yes, indeed it's about the difference between knowledge and meaning

assuming indeed that the flowers themselves do not ponder their own meaning, then the evolutionary evolved functional design of flowers has nothing to do with what they mean to humans (except perhaps with what they mean for Mr Darwin!)

The meaning of something is not an objective property of that something, it is a human interpretation of that something. Meaning is subjective, just as beauty is . And inter-subjective: people can talk & blog for hours about what flowers mean to them ...

meanwhile, in case of doubt, it's always a good idea to revert to Meester Eckhart ....

Anonymous said...

Hang evolution, it doesn't account for anything, but is a theory serving its own end: dullness.

Roxana said...

what is it about flowers that troubles us so much. when I've started to photograph, I thought that I should never take pictures of flowers, how can anyone attempt something new and creative when photographing flowers... but it didn't take me long to get entangled in all that 'organic ostentation' :-)

I love this quote (borrowed from black sun's blog):

...[H]e could never have seen a bunch of flowers shining with their own inner light and all but quivering under the pressure of the significance with which they were charged; could never have perceived that what rose and iris and carnation so intensely signified was nothing more, and nothing less, than what they were-a transience that was yet eternal life, a perpetual perishing that was at the same time pure Being, a bundle of minute, unique particulars in which, by some unspeakable and yet self-evident paradox, was to be seen the divine source of all existence...a breathing without returns to a starting-point, with no recurrent ebbs but only a repeated flow from beauty to heightened beauty, from deeper to ever deeper meaning.

It's Huxley.

Oh, and yes, your picture! you chose it almost to refute all that profusion and voluptuousness of flowers, didn't you? :-) such modesty and simplicity there, such self-restraint. you know, your post made me remember the zen 'rules' for the flower arrangement during the tea ceremony, not all flowers are allowed, exactly because of the same reasons that make you 'weary' of them. only such small, unimportant, modest flowers, maybe just one of them, freshly picked in the garden when it struggles to bloom shyly, almost one with the grass...

ffflaneur said...

hey Roxana - what an uncannily apt quote!! thanks. "a repeated flow from beauty to heightened beauty, from deeper to ever deeper meaning" . hmmm

ah photographing flowers ... thorny business indeed. but you, for one (judging by your blog-photos) manage to render flowers without ever succumbing to megapixel gaudiness or coyling kitsch.

(as to this post's photo : it was taken last Spring, while I was lying in the grass, looking up to a deep blue sky & to improbably pink blossoms which made my head spin - so i must confess i toned down the photo's colours digitally - can't have too much excitement on my blog, now can i ?!?)

ffflaneur said...

@lloydmintern: hang evolution ? well, i have a love-hate relation with evolution.

The proto-biologist in me revels in the spectacle that evolution presents: those countless variations that organic life keeps churning out, variations that perish or survive in a continuous ages-long process of trial&error. And Darwin's "Origin of species"is certainly not dull, it brims with excitement at the astonishing richness of natural life.

But oh, how dull dull dull are all the economists/sociologists/psychologists who want to drown everything of value in some sort of cynical utilitarian darwinism. How dull are their attempts to reduce human dignity, altruism, friendship, art etc to mere stratagems for survival & reproduction. How dull & dangerous to take "survival of the fittest" as a moral or political motto. Humans may be innately greedy & selfish - but they can step out of the foodchain, they can be altruistic, they can enjoy beauty purely for beauty's sake.

Hum - Etc. Etc. :-)

Anonymous said...

Countless variations, a continuous ages long process of trial and error? What kind of combinational fantasy is that? Darwin was singularly imaginative, I agree, but he was also a determined materialist, and he knew this undemonstratable theory of slow moving, mindless nature would dull the spirit (which apparently had also become lost--and witless).

ffflaneur said...

@lloydmintern - Darwin had the imagination to combine multiple observations into a synthetic hypothesis. And he had the singlemindedness to go testing this hypothesis over a lifetime. As did subsequent generations of biologists.
It seems to me that evolution theory has marshalled lots of compelling evidence - the variations in species observed on (for example) different neighbouring islands, the fossile record etc etc. Amongst many others, Ernst Mayr has compiled & written pretty convincing stuff on the subject.

Roxana said...

I hope these days are quiet and beautiful for you, dear ffflaneur, and you enjoy your winter holidays.